Yesterday, as the local election results rolled in, the story that enthralled the media (as it has for the last month) was the seemingly meteoric rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The final tally saw UKIP emerge with the fourth largest number of council seats, 163 in total. This figure remains paltry in relation to Labour’s 2101 seats and the Conservative total of 1359, and UKIP failed to secure control of a single council. Nonetheless, UKIP’s gain of 128 seats represents an unprecedented transformation of fortunes in contemporary British politics. A party who vocally seethed on the margins of UK politics since its inception in 1993 has now forcefully pushed its way onto the main stage, a position that is likely to be solidified with its anticipated strong showing in the European Parliamentary elections.
It’s difficult to write useful criticism of UKIP and its political platform. Not because there isn’t much to criticise in a party that flaunts its openly racist ideology like a badge of honour, and harbours the dregs of Thatcherite conservatism within the bosom of its ranks. No, the problem with criticism of UKIP (the likes of which has been splayed daily on pages of the Guardian and the Independent for the last few months) is that it in many ways normalises and rationalises the more subtle racism and discrimination advocated within the policies and statements of the ‘big’ parties. UKIP have tapped into a discursive zeitgeist that has been cultivated and courted by the governing parties for the past number of decades. The fear of EU erosion of sovereignty, the hatred of immigrants, and the redemption of British values and national pride that UKIP’s campaign rests upon are intricately linked to the populism courted by New Labour and David Cameron’s Conservatives during the last two decades. It is, therefore, unsurprising that a party who shouts these warnings from the rooftops and promises to uphold true British virtues (symbolised by the new national emblem, the fag and pint) is starting to gain some traction. That the media is seen to undermine them at every turn gives further credence to their anti-elitist mythical aura, and faux subversive image.
The sad reality of the rise of UKIP is the types of racism, xenophobia and nationalism they fervently advocate have been common components of the mainstream political landscape for decades. If people are shocked by the comments UKIP candidates make or by the policies they purpose, then they haven’t been paying attention for a long time now.
During the election campaign one of the main sticks used to beat UKIP leader Nigel Farage with related to comments he made about Romanian immigrants. Farage, in a radio interview, attempted to clarify a comment he made about being uncomfortable with the prospect of having Romanian neighbours. Farage argued that because Romania is a poor country with a high level of organised crime, Romanian “men” who immigrate to the UK were more likely to be engaged in criminal activity. Although Farage attempted to backtrack on his comments, Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg were quick to condemn Farage’s comments and the UKIP attitude to immigration. In Miliband’s words, the comments constituted a “racial slur.”
The more interesting comment Farage made in the interview, however, was when he was asked to distinguish between Romanian and German immigrants (Farage’s wife is German). Farage responded, “I think you know the difference. We want an immigration policy that is not just based on controlling not just quantity but quality.” These comments did not receive a high level of media attention or scrutiny, and the reason for this is, to my mind, because this attitude represents the acceptable face of contemporary, neoliberal, racism and discrimination. In a neoliberal society it is unacceptable to discriminate on the basis of who a person is or where they come from. It is, however, acceptable and important to discriminate on the basis of what a person can do and what they can contribute; a conception of discriminatory immigration policy based largely on the perceived monetary value the individual will provide.
Miliband, Clegg and Cameron did not attempt to publicly deride this aspect of Farage’s argument because it is an ideal that each of the main parties holds dear. Labour’s “practical” immigration policy contends that Britain’s economy “depends on [attracting] the best international talent,” and promises to introduce measures that ensure migrants adapt to UK culture and “play their part” in the betterment of UK society. The overarching Labour stance is that immigration needs to be managed and controlled to protect low-skilled British workers from being usurped by immigrations from Eastern Europe. Similarly, the Conservative policy professes to “only welcome those who want to work hard and contribute to our society,” and promises to introduce a citizenship test to ensure that immigrants understand “British values.” Even the purportedly immigration and EU friendly Liberal Democrats boast that they have cut immigration by a third while ensuring that highly-skilled immigrants remain to help Britain build a stronger economy. The message from all main parties is clear: ‘you can come to Britain provided you can help the British economy grow, preferably have a high level skill, and are committed to adopting British values’.
As we can see all three major political parties share Farage’s conception of immigration based on quality defined in terms of the perceived economic value of the would-be immigrant. In other words, a particular form of discrimination is upheld as a laudable value. However, this type of discrimination is viewed as objective because it is based on economics: it’s not discrimination against a person, it’s merely a judgement about what the person can contribute to the economy. This ideal becomes messy, however, if we view economics as something more overtly socio-political and cultural. Take Farage’s fear of Romanian immigrants for example. Farage does not fear Romanians simply because they are Romanian. He fears them because they come from an economical depressed country with high levels of crime and instability. In short, he fears Romanian immigrants because they are poor and poor people are more likely to resort to criminality. In terms of the big parties’ policies, we should welcome skilled immigrants and exclude unskilled immigrants. Again, this can be interpreted as immigration policy guided by exclusion of the poor: highly skilled workers are more likely to come from middle or high income backgrounds and economically strong countries where infrastructures for developing the employment skills desired by British industries are readily available. Neoliberal discrimination, in this way, is largely based upon the exclusion and vilification of the poor: it is based upon the assumption that poor people can’t or won’t contribute to society, and that they are likely to erode British values and engage in illegal activities. In short, poor immigrants are simply not needed or welcomed by British society.
The subversive centre of UKIP’s agenda is, therefore, not in its challenge to elitist politics. It is in its contradictory celebration and debasement of its target audience. Throughout the last few years UKIP has targeted seats in former working class, economically depressed British communities. They have proclaimed themselves as heroes of working classes, committed to reclaiming the jobs and economic stability that these communities have lost during the last four decades. However, their main political platform has taken the form of the defamation of poor and marginalised communities in other EU countries: British people living in poverty are in this position due to floods of poor immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe and other economically depressed regions. UKIP take the potential solidarity between the geographically separated victims of the failures of modern capitalism, and attempt to subvert this relationship into one of mutual fear and disdain. Rather than viewing immigrants as fellows, oppressed by the same economic apparatuses, Britain’s rapidly multiplying poor are being conditioned to blame those similarly disadvantaged for their plight. In this respect, UKIP wholeheartedly join with their supposedly elitist political adversaries and continue to propagate the myth the neoliberalism’s failures reside in its corrosive margins. UKIPs, Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labourites are united in their attempts to outsource political and economic failure to a dangerous outside that is in truth just another victim of neoliberalism’s broken ideology.