Allan Massie: Party of resentment has nowhere else to go

THE rise of Ukip has been one of the features of the two and a half years of the coalition government.

THE rise of Ukip has been one of the features of the two and a half years of the coalition government.

Last month, it stood at 14 per cent in the polls, about the same as the percentage of the vote it got in last May’s local elections in England, and it has outpolled the Liberal Democrats in by-elections. The party remains insignificant in Scotland, doubtless because here self-consciously patriotic nationalist feeling is satisfied by the SNP – which in other respects bears almost no resemblance to Ukip.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Ukip’s policies are on the whole right wing, even extreme right, and its first reason for existence is its intention, as its name suggests, to restore the independence of the UK by withdrawing from the European Union. Yet opinion polls also suggest that many of its supporters rank the EU quite low among the things that concern them most.

The party has done much better than any of its predecessors on the so-called far right. It isn’t obviously nasty like the BNP, or the old National Front. Its language is often moderate and reasonable, and its leader, Nigel Farage, is personable, witty and agreeable. He is attractive rather than repulsive, puts his case quietly and doesn’t indulge in rabble-rousing. One may find it difficult to take him altogether seriously. He dresses foppishly, rather as the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe did, and he looks the sort of silly ass that Hugh Laurie used to play so well. Nevertheless, he is a serious politician and an intelligent man, even if his recent suggestion that Ukip might help form a coalition government with the Conservatives after the next election is surely pie in the sky.

The party he leads is a ragbag. Some of its members are doubtless the “fruitcakes” and “closet racists” which David Cameron called them. Some are unpleasant: the MEP, Roger Helmer, who defected from the Tories last year, is the chap who called for the police to shoot rioters in the summer of 2011. But it’s a mistake to think Ukip supporters are all defecting Tories. Far from it: more than 40 per cent of those who identify themselves as such think George Osborne’s cuts are too deep and that welfare benefits should be higher, even though their leader says Osborne is not cutting deep enough. This divergence of opinion may not matter, since there is no chance that Ukip will be in a position to implement its policies.

Ukip is a party which thrives on resentment. Matthew Goodwin, an Associate Professor of Politics at Nottingham University says Ukip “now tends to do best among working-class voters who find the populist attacks on immigrants, Muslims and the political establishment attractive”. If immigration is the issue that matters most to many Ukip supporters who also both fear and resent what they call “the Islamification of England”, resentment of the political class may well be their strongest, most animating sentiment. Ukip attracts people who have come to believe – not without cause – that none of the political parties cares for them, or listens to their concerns. They hate and despise the “Westminster bubble” in which Cameron, Clegg and Miliband all live.

Resentment is a powerful driving force, and, incoherent though the party may be, there is no reason to suppose it will fade away. It will probably win a bigger share of the vote and more seats at the next European election. On the other hand, as long as Westminster elections are decided by the first-past-the-post voting system, it is unlikely to win more than the occasional seat in the Commons. This being so, it will continue to be the anti-politics political party – even if its support holds at between 12 and 18 per cent.

In many ways Ukip is like the French Front National. That party too has always been a mixed bag. In its early days its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen drew much of its support from the old right. The party was anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic, protectionist and hostile to Brussels and the EU, though Le Pen himself, like Farage, served as a member of the European Parliament. For many its main attraction was that it didn’t belong to the political class and so represented those who thought of themselves as excluded, people who believed they were victims of policies imposed on them without their consent. This is the position of many Ukip voters.

Recently the FN, now led by the founder’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, has, been moderating its language and seeking to broaden its appeal. According to a survey by Nonna Mayer, a professor at public research and higher education institution Sciences-Po, the increase in support for the FN can be attributed chiefly to a shift in the allegiance of working-class women – like the one whom Gordon Brown rashly stigmatised as “bigoted”. Ukip is capable of tapping into the fears and resentments of the same category here.

It’s unlikely Ukip will fade away, as the BNP has and the (British) National Front did. But it’s equally unlikely that it will make a break-through. It will at best find itself in the position of the FN in France, a political party whose appeal is considerable but whose ability to make a decisive advance is blocked.

Electorally, it will continue to win votes in areas where there is a large population of immigrants and ethnic voters and where the native (white) English feel swamped. It will appeal to voters who have little but resentment in common: working-class whites who believe the Labour Party has deserted them and middle-class people who yearn for what they call “real Tory policies”. It will feed on suspicion of the EU and win part of the vocal patriotic-nationalist vote.

But, being capable of being different things to different people, it will struggle to achieve coherence, and probably fail to do so. And it has nothing to say that is appealing in Scotland or Wales, where its suspicion of Westminster and the British political class is satisfied by the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Finally, it will struggle to hold its support in a general election when some of its supporters will reluctantly vote Conservative or Labour, if only to keep the other side out.