UKIP and the politics of immigration

Issue: 143

Andy Jones

The outcome of May’s European and local council elections demonstrates beyond doubt both widespread disaffection with the traditional framework of British party politics and the fact that the issue of immigration is now placed firmly at the centre of political debate.1 In the European elections the UK Independence Party (UKIP) won 27.5 percent of the vote, becoming the first party other than the two main parties to win a national election in 100 years. In the local council elections in England the party gained 161 seats, with a projected 17 percent of the national vote. UKIP’s vote hit the Tories, costing them control of several key councils. But they also polled well in some Labour areas. In Thurrock, UKIP’s vote resulted in Labour losing control of the council. In Rotherham, UKIP won ten of the 21 seats being contested, eight of them from Labour, becoming the main opposition to Labour on the council.

The election campaign was dominated by anti-immigrant racism. UKIP ran a vile campaign, with posters claiming: “26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose job are they after?” Their leader, Nigel Farage, argued that the issue was not just the quantity, but also the “quality” of immigrants coming to live in Britain, saying that people should be wary of Romanian families moving into their street because they brought with them a culture of criminality.2 The response from the main parties was to increase their own anti-immigration rhetoric. The Tories talked up the measures they have taken to cut immigration and reminded immigrants that they must do more to integrate. The Labour Party, while attacking UKIP’s Thatcherite economic policies,3 pandered to their anti-immigrant arguments. One Labour leaflet listed five reasons not to vote UKIP. Their position on immigration was not one of them, but taking “tough action on immigration” was listed as one of the five positive reasons to vote Labour. Days before the election Labour leader Ed Miliband gave a speech in which he argued that it was not prejudiced to be against immigration. After it he went to Thurrock to deliver another speech in which he singled out “a growing west African community” as well as “people coming over from Eastern Europe” as issues causing concern to local people.4

UKIP’s electoral success means that anti-immigrant racism will remain at the forefront of British politics in the run up to next year’s general election. It therefore poses a huge challenge for the left and anti-racists. UKIP’s emergence as a major political force is part of a broader European phenomenon involving the growth of a variety of far-right racist organisations in a number of countries. This broad grouping includes unreconstructed fascist organisations such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary; suited “eurofascists” such as the French Front National (FN); racist street fighting organisations like the English Defence League (EDL); and anti-immigrant racist parties such as the Party for Freedom (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, in the Netherlands.5 While many of those organisations have been established for some time, we in Britain have not previously faced the development of a successful right wing, racist, anti-establishment party on this scale. It is vital, therefore, that we understand the nature of the threat that UKIP poses.

UKIP’s rise

UKIP emerged as a result of the divisions within the British ruling class over membership of the European Union (EU) that, beginning in the late 1980s, fundamentally divided the Tory party. While most Tories opposed to membership of the EU remained within the party, a number of members left in the 1990s to form UKIP. Their preferred strategy was to act as a pressure group from the outside, hoping to push the Tory party to adopt a more eurosceptic position. That UKIP was, and is, a party representing a section of the ruling class is reflected in its economic policies which, in 2013, included a flat-rate income tax and an additional £77 billion cuts to public services, on top of those the Conservative-Liberal coalition had already committed to. It is also reflected in the background of many of UKIP’s leading figures and backers. Nigel Farage is a privately educated former commodities broker. UKIP’s treasurer, Stuart Wheeler, is one of Britain’s richest people and a former Tory donor. In 2001 he gave £5 million to the Tories, still Britain’s biggest ever individual political donation. Paul Sykes, the businessman who spent £1.5 million on UKIP’s poster campaign for the May elections, is a former Tory who left the party in 1991 over the signing of the Maastricht Treaty.

While it attracts ex-members of the British National Party and other fascists, UKIP is not a fascist party. It does not attempt to build a mass street movement with the aim of the violent annihilation of workers’ organisations and the destruction of parliamentary democracy. Instead it aims at electoral success in order to promote the interests of that section of the British ruling class that does not want to be tied to Europe. UKIP’s primary focus for most of its history was standing in elections for the European Parliament. In the 2004 European elections it won 2.7 million votes, 16 percent of the total, and came third, ahead of the Liberal Democrats. In 2009 its share of the vote rose only slightly, to 16.5 percent, but this time it was enough to win second place, behind the Tories. Historically, UKIP has fared much worse in domestic elections. The party’s average vote in the seats it contested in the 2010 general election was only 3.5 percent, up less than 1.5 percent on its 2001 results. This began to change after the election of the coalition government in 2010. Between the beginning of 2011 and February 2014 UKIP stood in 15 parliamentary by-elections, coming second or third on eight occasions. It gained more than 10 percent of the vote on seven occasions, and more than 20 percent on three of those occasions.6

It was in 2013 that UKIP made its breakthrough, winning 27.8 percent in the Eastleigh by-election in February and 24.2 percent in South Shields in May. In addition, in the local council elections that year, the party won 147 seats, taking 1.1 million votes, with an average share of 24 percent (up from 16 percent when the same seats were contested in 2009). By the end of 2013 UKIP’s opinion poll figures stood at 10 percent, up from 3 percent in 2010.7

These results marked a watershed, hugely increasing UKIP’s profile, allowing it to dominate political debate and providing the springboard for the party’s election campaign this year. The key factor making this breakthrough possible is the huge level of disillusionment with the mainstream political parties that now exists. The coalition’s imposition of harsh austerity measures, coupled with the lack of any effective opposition from Labour, has led to a feeling among many people that none of the main parties represent their interests, and a generalised sense that politicians are part of an establishment club, cut off from the experiences of ordinary people. This sense that politicians from all the main parties comprise a privileged elite was noted by UKIP’s deputy leader, Paul Nuttall, in his speech to the party’s 2013 conference:

In the days of Clement Attlee Labour MPs came from the mills, the mines and the factories. The Labour MPs today follow the same route as the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. They go to private school, they go to Oxbridge, they get a job in an MP’s office and they become an MP. None of them would know what it’s like in a working man’s club.8

UKIP has positioned itself to tap into this disillusionment by posing as a party of outsiders challenging the Westminster elite. This has involved a concerted effort by UKIP to shake off its image as a party of disgruntled Tories from the shires and to present itself as an insurgent anti-establishment force. Increasingly, UKIP projects itself as a party of “ordinary Britons”, and even of the urban working class. The party now targets not just former Tories, but, as Farage put it during the 2013 local election campaign, “white, working class Labour voters who feel abandoned by Ed Miliband’s party”.9

This shift has gone hand in hand with an increasing emphasis on anti-immigrant racism. This began in 2010 under the leadership of former Tory peer Lord Pearson, who was more ready than previous UKIP leaders to present an overtly racist message. In particular, Pearson pursued an Islamophobic agenda, inviting the PVV leader Geert Wilders to the UK to show his anti-Islam film, Fitna, at a private viewing in parliament and demanding a ban on the burka and niqab in public places. Immigration was placed firmly at the forefront of UKIP’s 2010 general election campaign, with a campaign including billboards with the slogan: “5,000 immigrants arrive here every week: Stop mass immigration”.10

Farage has developed and deepened this strategy. In doing so, he faces a problem. One of the great successes of the left and the anti-racist movement in Britain has been the generalisation of anti-racist ideas. Farage understands that, as a result, the labelling of UKIP as a racist party poses a threat to the kind of electoral success he wants to achieve. His approach has, therefore, been carefully calibrated. In particular, he has sought on occasion to distance UKIP publicly from other forces on the fascist and racist right, an association with which would, he knows, be damaging. Following the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013, for instance, he remained silent in order not to be associated with the BNP and the EDL as they attempted to mobilise on the streets. He has refused, for the moment, to join the new grouping in the European Parliament led by Geert Wilders and Front National leader Marine Le Pen, referring to the FN’s “prejudice and anti-Semitism”.11 When UKIP’s launch of its election poster campaign in May this year attracted widespread accusations of racism, Farage organised a public rally in which, surrounded by a small number of black and Asian candidates, he pleaded, “Please, do not ever call us a racist party”.12

These moves are, however, pure hypocrisy. Farage is no opponent of racism. In 2008 he named Enoch Powell, the Tory MP who argued that immigration would lead to increased violence in his notorious “rivers of blood” speech in 1968, as his political hero.13 UKIP is a member of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group in the European Parliament which until recently included racist organisations such as the Italian Northern League and the Danish People’s Party, and now includes the far-right Sweden Democrats. Farage’s election agent in the 2005 general election was a former National Front branch organiser.14 At the same time as criticising the FN’s anti-Semitism, he went out of his way to praise Marine Le Pen’s “good qualities”, saying that she was “achieving remarkable things”, and shortly before the May elections he was keen to point out that UKIP would be likely to be part of a “common front” with the FN over certain issues in the European Parliament.

Anti-immigrant racism is at the centre of Farage’s strategy. During 2013 he focused on whipping up hysteria over the number of Romanians and Bulgarians who would “flood” into Britain, taking “indigenous” jobs, when work restrictions were lifted in January this year.15 Emboldened by his electoral success, he has also been prepared to use more explicitly racist arguments. In his speech to the party’s spring conference in February 2014 Farage said:

In scores of our cities and market towns, this country in a short space of time has frankly become unrecognisable. Whether it is the impact on local schools and hospitals, whether it is the fact in many parts of England you don’t hear English spoken any more. This is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.

At a press conference following his speech he gave the following anecdote about a train journey out of London:

We stopped at London Bridge, New Cross, Hither Green, it was not until we got past Grove Park that I could hear English being audibly spoken in the carriage. Does that make me feel slightly awkward? Yes it does… I don’t feel very comfortable in that situation and I don’t think the majority of British people do.16

Drawing together the anti-establishment and anti-immigrant strands of his newly honed strategy during one of his live televised debates earlier this year with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, Farage argued that immigration is: “good for the rich because it’s cheaper nannies and cheaper chauffeurs and cheaper gardeners, but it’s bad news for ordinary Britons… It has left the white working class effectively as an underclass and that, I think, is a disaster.” He ended with an appeal:

Let’s take back control of our country. Let’s control our borders and have a proper immigration policy. Let’s stop giving away £55 million a day as a membership fee to a club that we don’t need to be a part of. I would urge people: come and join the people’s army. Let’s topple the establishment who have led us to this mess.17

UKIP is, then, seeking to draw on people’s anxieties and anger in order to marshal them round a right wing, racist, anti-establishment agenda. Their anti-establishment politics are, in reality, limited to promoting the interests of the minority within the British capitalist class who want to leave the EU. In all other respects, the party is very much part of the establishment it attacks. For all Farage’s talk of a “people’s army” to topple the elite, he was keen to make it clear during the election campaign that he would, in the event of a hung parliament after the general election, keep David Cameron in power if he made good on his pledge to have an in/out referendum on EU membership.18 UKIP is a pro-business party and its argument that it represents the interests of ordinary people is, therefore, false. But in presenting itself as the authentic voice of ordinary people’s rage against the Westminster elite, the party has hit upon a strategy that, it hopes, will help it build a level of support that will force the mainstream parties in its direction.19

Who votes for UKIP?

In a recent detailed study of UKIP’s development and base of support, political scientists Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin argue that, following its recent shift in strategy, the party can no longer be seen as “the Conservative Party in exile”. Instead UKIP’s recent success is, they say:

a working-class phenomenon. Its support is heavily concentrated among older, blue-collar workers, with little education and few skills; groups who have been “left behind” by the economic and social transformation of Britain in recent decades, and pushed to the margins as the main parties have converged in the centre ground. UKIP are not a second home for disgruntled Tories in the shires; they are a first home for angry and disaffected working class Britons of all political backgrounds, who have lost faith in a political system that ceased to represent them long ago.20

UKIP is, according to Ford and Goodwin, “the most working class dominated party since Michael Foot’s Labour in 1983”.21 Based on their sociological analysis of the source of UKIP’s votes they argue that of the ten constituencies in which UKIP has the best prospects of success in the 2015 general election, eight are currently held by Labour, and only two by the Tories.22 UKIP is, on this analysis, at least as much of a problem for Labour as it is for the Tories, if not more so. This view is now widespread in the media and is the view that dominated coverage of May’s election results.

There are, however, two significant problems with Ford and Goodwin’s analysis. The first is in their understanding of social class. Ford and Goodwin consistently equate the working class with those in manual jobs. The working class is, in their view, synonymous with blue-collar workers in declining industries. Their conclusion that UKIP is “the most working class dominated party” is drawn from their figures that show that UKIP draws a bigger proportion of its support from blue-collar workers than do any of the other parties (42 percent for UKIP as against 35 percent for Labour).23 Conversely, the fact that Labour draws a lot of support from people in white-collar jobs, many of whom are university educated, is, they argue, evidence that the party has moved away from its traditional base, its support now being dominated by the “professional middle class”. But this is far too narrow a view of the working class. Ford and Goodwin ignore the way in which capitalism constantly restructures the working class, and that omission skews their analysis. Those employed in office work in, say, the public sector, education and service industries, who make up a large part of Labour’s support, and who Ford and Goodwin describe as middle class, are in fact themselves a major part of the contemporary working class.

The second problem is political. Ford and Goodwin have a tendency, especially in some of their numerous recent press articles, to imply that the group they identify as working class would all in the past have automatically voted Labour:

In a time of falling incomes, rising inequality and spending cuts, such voters should be lining up behind the party that traditionally stood for social protection and redistribution. Instead, they are switching their loyalty to a right-wing party headed by a stockbroker and staffed by activists who worship Thatcher. Those who are getting hit hardest by the crisis and austerity are turning not to Labour, but to Farage for solutions.24

But this ignores the fact that historically a significant minority of workers have always voted Tory. While it is true that UKIP’s by-election results in places such as Rotherham (21.7 percent in November 2012), South Shields (24.2 percent in May 2013) and Sale and Wythenshaw (18 percent in February 2014) would not be possible without attracting a significant number of working class voters, many of those are likely to be working class Tories rather than traditional Labour supporters. Ford and Goodwin therefore tend to exaggerate the extent to which UKIP is hitting Labour’s support as opposed to that of the Tories.

In fact, polling figures consistently show that it is the Tories’ support that is affected to a greater degree than Labour’s. An analysis in May 2013 collating figures from various opinion polls showed that “16 percent of those who voted Conservative in 2010 and currently have a party preference would now vote UKIP. The equivalent figure for the Liberal Democrats is 8 percent and for Labour 4 percent”.25 Following last year’s council elections, one analysis found that, if people had voted in the same way in a general election, UKIP would have won nine parliamentary seats, all of which are currently held by the Tories.26 A recent poll conducted by the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft showed that 52 percent of those who voted UKIP in the European elections had voted Tory in 2010, and only 15 percent had previously voted Labour.27 The figures show consistently that UKIP is drawing more support from Tory voters than from any other single party. While Ford and Goodwin acknowledge in passing that UKIP has “peeled off the blue-collar section of David Cameron’s electoral support”,28 they do not integrate this insight into their general analysis.

Ford and Goodwin note that the vast majority of UKIP supporters agree with political statements such as “big business takes advantage of ordinary people” and that there is “one law for the poor and another for the rich”, arguing, therefore, that this shows UKIP has divided the political left rather than the right. But this assumes that such statements are expressions of the reformist consciousness typical of Labour supporters, whereas in fact they are views that very often exist as part of the contradictory ideas of many working class Tories and small business people. In the survey that Ford and Goodwin refer to, the only truly social democratic statement included is the view that the government should redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Revealingly, only 45 percent of UKIP supporters agree with that, compared with 72 percent of Labour supporters.29

The view that UKIP is taking the majority of its support from the right rather than the left is also supported by other surveys of the political attitudes of the party’s supporters. Some 70 percent of those who voted UKIP in the European elections placed immigration as one of their top three concerns, while only 39 percent said the economy and jobs and a tiny 7 percent said poverty and inequality. The equivalent figures for Labour voters were 18 percent for immigration, 48 percent for the economy and 27 percent for poverty and inequality.30 A YouGov poll in May showed that 87 percent of people who intended to vote UKIP in the European elections thought that all further immigration to Britain should be halted, with 51 percent agreeing that the government should encourage immigrants and their families (including those born in Britain) to leave the country. These figures are more than twice as high as those for Labour supporters.31

Ford and Goodwin’s argument that UKIP is dividing the left more than the right and replacing Labour as the main party of the British working class is, for all these reasons, a huge exaggeration that we should reject. In party political terms, UKIP’s rise is, first and foremost, a crisis for the Tories. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that UKIP’s success does not simply represent a restructuring of the right wing vote. It is clearly the case that, while not the biggest part of its support, UKIP has won a significant number of votes from former Labour supporters. In the European elections, 660,000 people who had voted Labour in 2010 switched to UKIP. This is far fewer than the 2.3 million Tories who defected, and less than the 800,000 Liberal Democrat supporters who switched but it is, nevertheless a very high figure.

Moreover, UKIP’s growth has a significance that goes beyond the electoral considerations of the main parties. Each success for UKIP legitimises anti-immigrant arguments and gives confidence to the racists. UKIP’s rise creates a vicious circle in which the main parties, in reaction, attempt to appear ever harder on the issue of immigration, with the effect that political debate as a whole is dragged to the right.32 Writing after Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, Paul Foot noted that the times then were “not ripe for populist leaders… The ‘great simplicities’ of the right are politically attractive, but not materially so. Politics may be humbug, but profits are rising, as are share and property values”.33 Even in those conditions, however, sections of the working class were pulled into action behind Powell’s racist agenda, and he helped fuel the growth of the National Front. UKIP’s rise comes in different circumstances, after six years of economic crisis and at a time when, although the coalition talks of recovery, the benefits are yet to be seen by workers, who face years more of austerity. UKIP’s growth is, therefore, a very dangerous development and one that must not be left unchallenged.

The Tories, Labour and immigration

A very common argument is that UKIP’s rise is an expression of anti-immigrant sentiment that has built up at the bottom of society, but which is ignored or sneered at by the political establishment.34 But this could not be further from the truth. In fact, the rise in anti-immigrant views has been encouraged by the actions and words of the mainstream parties. Despite being forced into coalition with the Liberal Democrats after the 2010 general election, the Tories have set the immigration agenda. They fought the election promising to cut immigration and immediately began implementing a series of tough new measures, including an annual cap on the number of skilled workers allowed to come to the UK and tougher requirements both for workers applying to settle permanently or those applying for a visa to study in the UK. Rule changes in 2012 meant that British citizens or settled migrants wishing to bring their spouse or partner to live in the UK needed to have a minimum annual income of £18,600 (previously, the requirement was to show an income equivalent to Income Support levels). While the government cannot prevent immigration from the EU it has attempted to discourage it by introducing restrictions on EU migrants claiming welfare benefits. The Tories have also stated that they will impose stricter controls over any new states joining the EU.

These measures have not gone unopposed within the ruling class. The Confederation of British Industry, for example, has come out against the government’s target of capping net migration, complaining that it hits economic recovery. Many businesses want to see fewer restrictions on immigration because it benefits them to be able to attract workers from around the globe. These arguments are reflected in divisions within the coalition, with Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable, for example, making a speech in March this year in which he argued that cutting EU migration would increase the budget deficit.35 It is also reflected to a lesser extent within the Tory party itself. A new group, “Conservatives for Managed Migration”, was recently launched by Tory MPs worried that attacks on immigration undermine the Tories’ commitment to free markets and harm the party’s reputation with big business.

These divisions reflect the tension over immigration that has existed historically within the ruling class. In economic terms, the ruling class benefits from the removal of restrictions on immigration as it enables businesses to recruit workers from a global workforce. In political terms, however, especially during times of economic crisis, the ruling class benefits from being able to divide workers against one another in order to deflect anger at the base of society away from the system. Turning “indigenous” workers against immigrants is one key tool that enables them to do this.36 With the coalition committed to historically unprecedented and unpopular austerity measures it is politics rather than economics that is driving its agenda on immigration at the moment.

There are three main themes to the Tories’ ideological arguments. The first is that immigration is creating unsustainable pressure on public services and jobs. This is the reasoning behind the new financial requirements for spouse visa applications, for example, allowing the Tories to argue that they are preventing migrants from draining precious resources away from the welfare state by insisting that they can only come here if they can fend for themselves. This argument, however, bears no relation to economic reality. The evidence is that such immigrants do not “burden” the welfare state but, on the contrary, make a net positive contribution through taxation. A recent study estimated that the change to the rules would cost the Treasury £850 million over ten years.37 Home secretary Theresa May displayed similar disdain for the facts when she claimed that for every additional 100 immigrants, 23 British workers would not be employed. In March this year it emerged that May had ignored advice not to rely on the Migration Advisory Committee study on which she based her claim and that she had then suppressed a government report which, based on a comprehensive overview of research since 2003, concluded that the effect of immigration on “indigenous” jobs was negligible.38

Secondly, the Tories’ attacks on immigration have been linked with their renewed assault on multiculturalism. In April 2011 David Cameron, in a speech to party members, argued that immigration:

placed real pressures on communities up and down the country. Not just pressures on schools, housing and healthcare—though those have been serious…but social pressures too. Because real communities aren’t just collections of public service users living in the same space.

Real communities are bound by common experiences…forged by friendship and conversation…knitted together by all the rituals of the neighbourhood, from the school run to the chat down the pub. And these bonds can take time. So real integration takes time.

That’s why, when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods…perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there…on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate…that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.

This has been the experience for many people in our country—and I believe it is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it and address it.39

This speech came just two months after Cameron’s speech on security in Munich in which he had argued that “state multiculturalism” had failed.40 Echoing themes that have come to dominate discussions of multiculturalism among significant parts of the media and the liberal left, Cameron argues that immigration poses a threat to the established sense of community that supposedly binds society.

Thirdly, the Tories have argued that the “liberal establishment’s” concern with human rights has let ordinary people down by preventing the deportation of criminals. This is a theme that Theresa May has returned to again and again, portraying herself as fighting on the side of an embattled people against “liberal judges”.41

Labour’s response to all of this has been spineless. Rather than challenging the false economics, cultural myths and outright lies put about by the Tories, Ed Miliband has made a number of major speeches in which he has apologised for the party’s supposed “mistakes” over immigration while in government. In March 2013 Labour devoted an entire party political broadcast to the issue of immigration, the first time in its history that it had done so. In it Miliband said: “Millions are concerned about immigration and if people are concerned, then the Labour Party I lead is going to be talking about it”.42 In “talking about” immigration, Labour has accepted the argument that immigration is a threat to jobs and services, and follows the Tories in insisting that migrants should be forced to do more to “integrate” in order that, in shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper’s words, “our communities are not divided”.43

Rather than defending immigrants, then, the Labour leadership has reinforced the consensus that immigration is a problem. This represents a repetition of a pattern, identified by Paul Foot half a century ago, of Labour leaders capitulating in the face of an attack from the right over immigration. Foot was writing in the 1960s when, after opposing the introduction of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act while in opposition, once in power after 1964 Labour set about tightening the controls the act had introduced. What had happened in the meantime? The 1964 general election in which, in Smethwick, the Tory candidate, with the slogan, “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”, overturned a Labour majority with a swing against Labour of 7.2 percent (as against a national swing of 3.5 percent the other way).44 Labour politician Richard Crossman later summed up the party’s attitude after Smethwick, saying that “immigration can be the greatest potential vote-loser for the Labour Party”.45

Foot’s insight remains valid but today the situation is even worse. To a large extent, it was the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that laid the ideological groundwork for the coalition’s current attack on immigration. It was ministers in those governments who talked of “self-segregation” by Muslim communities after fascist attacks provoked rioting by Asian youths in mill towns in the North of England in 2001. It was Labour home secretary David Blunkett who, in 2002, echoed Margaret Thatcher when he said that children of asylum seekers were “swamping” local schools. It was Tony Blair who, in justifying the war on terror, went out of his way to link Muslims in the public mind with terrorism. It was Jack Straw who argued that the veil was a “visible statement of separation and of difference” that made good relations between Muslims and non-Muslims more difficult. And it was Gordon Brown who called for “British jobs for British workers”.46

Labour’s attacks both drew on and contributed to the development of a new consensus among liberal and social democratic intellectuals in which immigration and multiculturalism are no longer to be celebrated but are to be seen as a cause for anxiety. Writers such as David Goodhart and Paul Collier argue that immigration threatens the social cohesion that, supposedly, was central to the success of the welfare state as it developed from the mid-20th century. They claim that the welfare state consensus was based on a sense of “generalised trust” between citizens that cannot exist in a society where people from different cultures lead “parallel lives”.47

In Goodhart’s words, “it has been through the claims of national citizenship, and the mutual sacrifices and commitments that it sometimes entails, that the great democratic and welfare advances of the late 19th and 20th centuries were made”.48 Immigrants are, in this view, outsiders who have not made the same “sacrifices and commitments” as the indigenous population. Thus: “the miracle of cooperation and institutionalised sharing that is a modern welfare democracy has been hard won over centuries of nation-building and class conflict, yet it could unravel over a generation or two”.49 Opposition to immigration, therefore, is not necessarily racist, Goodhart argues, but has a “legitimate community preservation aspect”.50

Similar theories, associated with the “Blue Labour” project, are often justified as being an attempt to reconnect with the values of Labour’s traditional supporters among the white working class, which supposedly combine a strong attachment to the welfare state with conservative views on social issues, including immigration. Thus one writer linked to Blue Labour argues that “cosmopolitanism is viewed by many as a symptom of a wider loss of control over one’s working and daily life, over immigration, and over the cultural integrity of the nation”.51 The Labour Party formally distanced itself from Blue Labour after its leading figure, Maurice Glasman, argued in 2011 that all immigration into the UK should be halted. The ideas that it represented remain, however, alive among some sections of the Labour Party, including its policy coordinator, Jon Cruddas.52

David Cameron’s outright attack on multiculturalism in 2011 was a watershed but it did not, therefore, come out of the blue. During the 2000s, while the Tories found themselves to a large extent marginalised by their own rhetoric on asylum and immigration, it was, disgracefully, the Labour Party that shifted the terms of mainstream political debate on immigration and multiculturalism to the right.

The new cutting edge of racism

Both the Tories and Labour have, therefore, contributed to a significant rise in opposition to immigration in recent years. In 2011, 52 percent of people thought that immigration had a negative economic impact, compared with 43 percent in 2002. Some 48 percent thought that immigration had a negative cultural impact, compared with 33 percent in 2002. In 2013, 77 percent wanted some kind of reduction in immigration, with 56 percent wanting it reduced “a lot” (in 1995 the figures were, respectively, 63 percent and 39 percent). Predictably, the figure is higher among Conservative voters, with 86 percent wanting immigration reduced, but even among Labour voters 71 percent wanted a reduction.53 Moreover, as one report has pointed out:

While negative views of immigration have been common for a long time, the high level of public concern with immigration is more recent… Immigration and race relations were rarely mentioned by respondents as one of the “most important issues” facing the country prior to 2000. As recently as December 1999, fewer than 5 percent of Ipsos-MORI’s monthly sample gave a reply that had to do with race relations or immigration. But since then, immigration has become one of the most frequently named issues.54

UKIP has benefited hugely from this development, and its success has set off a new round of intensified attacks as it increases the pressure on the coalition to appear ever harder on immigration. After the Tories’ poor results in last year’s council elections, and UKIP’s simultaneous breakthrough, the Tories stepped up their assault on migrants. Last summer, for example, the government sent out mobile billboards telling “illegal” immigrants to “go home or face arrest”. In October the coalition introduced its new Immigration Act, which became law in May this year. The act very significantly affects migrants’ access to housing, health services and other basic necessities, and makes it far easier for the government to deport people. There have been numerous pieces of immigration legislation over the last 20 years, each more restrictive than its predecessors, but the act marks a step-change. It instigates a system in which landlords, health workers and others in public services will be expected to check people’s immigration status. In doing so, it ensures that, in Theresa May’s words, “immigration policy is built into our benefits system, our health system, our housing system, the provision of services across government and access to employment”.55

Labour has also succumbed to this pressure. The Labour leadership supported the Immigration Act as it was going through parliament, with only six Labour MPs voting against when it was debated in January this year.

The media has joined in too, with an endless stream of anti-immigrant headlines. In November the press gave huge coverage to comments by former Labour home secretary David Blunkett in which he said that there would be an “explosion” in Sheffield unless the behaviour and culture of Roma migrants in the city was changed. This came shortly after the press had been awash with stories of Roma people supposedly stealing children and selling them.56

We now see a vicious circle in which mainstream politicians, pressured by UKIP and egged on by the right wing press, justify further attacks on immigration on the basis that this is the only way in which to “connect” with voters. Far from satisfying the racists, however, this only serves to encourage them to go further, legitimating their views among wider sections of society and leading to a further rise in racism.

A common argument among significant sections of the liberal left, however, is that the rise in anti-immigrant views should not be labelled racist. Matthew Goodwin, for example, argues that because UKIP does not share the “’blood and soil’ ethnic nationalism” of the BNP, it is, therefore, not racist.57 Paul Collier argues that racism is “a belief in genetic differences between races” and, therefore, cannot apply to economic and cultural arguments against immigration.58 Such arguments are reinforced by the fact that the central targets of UKIP’s attacks, migrants from Eastern Europe, are generally white.

These arguments are mistaken. While racism in its older forms often involved notions of genetic superiority, it also always drew on arguments about cultural differences. Moreover, since the discrediting of biological racism in the mid-20th century, racist ideas have been focused more exclusively on the supposed cultural differences between people of different backgrounds.59 It was, for example, arguments about culture rather than genetic superiority that formed the basis of Enoch Powell’s racism in the 1960s and 1970s.60 While racism has primarily been directed at black and Asian people, it can also be aimed at white people from other countries. Karl Marx noted in 1870, for example, that the British working class had been “divided into two hostile camps” by the fostering of “religious, social and national prejudices against the Irish worker”.61 The first piece of legislation controlling immigration in Britain, the 1905 Aliens Act, was aimed at Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. Nigel Farage’s comments about the “criminal culture” of Romanians are part of a long-standing racist tradition.62

Racism developed historically as a tool used by the ruling class to divide workers against one another. The precise form it has taken has changed depending on circumstances and we have seen over the last year the establishment of anti-immigrant arguments as the cutting edge of racism. That does not mean that other forms of racism have disappeared. On the contrary, one form of racism can reinforce others. In Europe, for example, the far-right has grown by concentrating its attacks on Muslims but that has now fed into a rise in anti-Semitism.63 In Britain the rise in anti-immigrant racism provides a backdrop against which other forms of racism can, and do, re-emerge with increased force.64 While, for the moment, forces such as the BNP and EDL are in retreat, the generalisation of racist arguments about immigration can create the conditions in which they, or organisations like them, can quickly grow again.

UKIP is the main organised expression of the new anti-immigrant racism. This is why it is so dangerous to ignore UKIP’s anti-immigrant arguments and simply concentrate on its Thatcherite economic policies as, for example, the “Unions Together” campaign did in the run-up to the May election. It is also a mistake to argue, as some do, that all that is needed in order to undermine UKIP is a fight by the left and the trade unions against austerity. It is undoubtedly the case that UKIP’s politics of despair has benefitted from the absence of a serious fightback against austerity, which could give hope to the millions of people who feel turned off by the mainstream parties. Serious action by the trade unions in defence of jobs, wages and working conditions can bring workers of whatever nationality together and create a context in which anti-racist ideas can win. But it is an illusion to think that that process is automatic. The strikes at the Lindsey oil refinery in 2009 which, initially at least, were dominated by the slogan “British jobs for British workers” show that militant trade union activity does not automatically overcome backward ideas on immigration.

Ultimately, the existence of racist ideas within the working class will weaken any union fightback and aid the bosses. It is, therefore, vital that we challenge UKIP by both exposing their bosses’ agenda on the economy and taking up politically their anti-immigrant racism. This does not mean dismissing everyone who voted UKIP as a racist. Many workers are both opposed, in general, to racism but at the same time believe that there is too much immigration. They can be pulled away from UKIP by a campaign that exposes the party’s racism for what it is and argues that migrants are not to blame for the economic crisis. This is what the Stand up to UKIP campaign is attempting to do and it will be important in the coming months to continue and deepen that process.


We have already seen that UKIP’s success last year led to an intensification of the coalition’s attacks on migrants. Following the May elections, that trend looks set to continue. There has been talk of further measures to cut immigration65 and it was also revealed that, in a bid to demonstrate that they would turn words into actions, the Tories had planned a high-profile series of immigration raids to begin just two weeks after the elections.66

Within the Labour Party, UKIP’s success has triggered a debate about how to respond. Figures on the Blairite wing of the party have argued that Labour should defend its record on immigration and not concede to UKIP’s agenda. Their arguments are, however, not based on principled anti-racism, but focus on the business case for immigration.67 Moreover, the dominant argument within the party is for Labour to take a harder stance on immigration in an effort to win back voters attracted to UKIP. This position is being pressed by figures such as Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper. Another group of Labour MPs wrote an open letter to Ed Miliband in the Observer, calling for Labour to commit to constrain free movement within the EU.68 All the signs are that it will be this path that Labour takes. Within days of the European election results being announced, Sadiq Khan wrote an open letter to UKIP supporters, published in the Sunday Express, promising that Labour had changed on immigration.69 Voices within the parliamentary party calling for a principled stand against UKIP’s racism, such as Diane Abbott,70 are marginalised.

It is clear, then, that with the general election less than a year away, UKIP’s rise has locked in a dynamic that is dragging mainstream politics to the right. Emboldened by its success, UKIP is likely further to ratchet up its rhetoric and immigration will dominate the political agenda over the coming year. Opposing UKIP’s rise will mean bringing together the kinds of forces that were central to the vibrant “Stand up to racism and fascism” demonstrations in London and other European cities on 22 March this year. It will mean socialists taking up the detailed arguments within the unions and anti-austerity campaigns over whether immigration causes unemployment, whether migrants drive down wages, what is meant by “British culture” and so on.71 Many people are appalled at UKIP’s success and are open to these arguments. A campaign that draws those people in can drive UKIP back. Stand up to UKIP, supported by the UCU union and various leading trade unionists, campaigners and MPs represents, the beginnings of such a campaign.72 But we also need a serious fight by the unions against austerity that can give hope in place of the despair that UKIP plays on.


1: Thanks to Esme Choonara, Joseph Choonara and Jess Edwards for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.

2: Aitkenhead, 2014. Those comments went largely ignored by the media until Farage was challenged about them in an interview on LBC Radio. At that point even the Sun newspaper had to admit UKIP were racist (while going out of its way to maintain that being opposed to immigration as such was not racist).

3: See Miliband, 2014, and Cooper, 2014.

4: The version of the speech published by the Labour Party does not include these phrases, referring simply to “people seeking to build a better life here”. But for an audio recording of the speech, see Hardman, 2014.

5: For more on Wilders, see Van der Zwan, 2011.

6: For a full breakdown of UKIP’s results, see Ford and Goodwin, 2014a, p245. The figures given there do not include the Sale and Wythenshaw by-election in February 2014 or the Newark by-election in June.

7: Ford and Goodwin, 2014a, p92.

8: Quoted in Ford and Goodwin, 2014a, p136.

9: Quoted in Ford and Goodwin, 2014a, p95.

10: Ford and Goodwin, 2014a, pp83-84.

11: Mason, 2014b. On Wilders’s and Le Pen’s new grouping, see Kampagiannis, 2014.

12: Johnston, 2014.

13: Mason, 2014a.

14: Jeffries, 2014.

15: In fact, the figures showed that in March this year there were fewer Romanian and Bulgarian workers employed in Britain than there had been in December 2013, just before the restrictions were lifted (Travis, 2014b).

16: Sparrow, 2014.

17: Mason, Watt and Wintour, 2014.

18: See Watt, 2014.

19: UKIP is often described as a “populist” party. For a number of reasons, I have avoided that term. Firstly, the term populist does not provide a political description of what UKIP stands for. Secondly, when applied to right wing organisations, the term implies that ordinary people are naturally reactionary. Thirdly, it is a term used cynically by mainstream politicians to show disdain for ordinary people’s ideas. Calling UKIP “anti-establishment”, while not without its problems, does have the advantage of capturing the fact that the party does stand outside of the political (as opposed to the economic) establishment, an important part of its appeal to many of its voters.

20: Ford and Goodwin, 2014a, p270.

21: Ford and Goodwin, 2014b.

22: Ford and Goodwin, 2014a, pp259-262.

23: Ford and Goodwin, 2014a, p153. In fact the category they refer to (“working class/other/never worked”) is likely to include self-employed people and supervisors as well as working class people in manual jobs.

24: Ford and Goodwin, 2014b.

25: Curtice, 2013.

26: Kellner, 2014. Two of the nine were constituencies that Labour had lost to the Tories in 2010.

27: Lord Ashcroft Polls, 2014.

28: Ford and Goodwin, 2014a, p171.

29: Ford and Goodwin, 2014c.

30: Lord Ashcroft Polls, 2014.

31: YouGov, 2014.

32: See Shifrin, 2013.

33: Foot, 1969, pp139-140. In fact, the long post-war boom was just coming to an end, but workers were yet to experience the serious decline in living standards that was to come.

34: This is central to Ford and Goodwin’s analysis, for example.

35: Travis, 2014a.

36: On the role played by migrant labour under capitalism, see Hardy, 2009. For a detailed discussion of the politics of immigration in the 20th century, see Brown, 1995.

37: Dunt, 2013.

38: Grice and Morris, 2014.

39: Cameron, 2011b.

40: Cameron, 2011a. For a discussion of the recent assault on multiculturalism, see Jenkins, 2011. See also Mahamdallie, 2011.

41: See, for example, May, 2013.

42: Grice, 2013.

43: Cecil, 2014.

44: See Foot, 1965a and 1965b.

45: Quoted in Brown, 1995, p20.

46: On Labour’s record after 1997, see Mahamdallie, 2002; Ahmed, 2013; Kundnani, 2007; and Fekete, 2009.

47: See Goodhart, 2004 and 2013, and Collier, 2013. In arguing that generalised trust is undermined by immigration, Goodhart and Collier both draw on the work of the American political scientist Robert Putnam, who was a favourite of Tony Blair. For a critique of his research, see Hallberg and Lund, 2005.

48: Goodhart, 2013, p285.

49: Goodhart, 2013, pxxii.

50: Goodhart, 2013, p134.

51: Rutherford, 2011, p102.

52: See, for example, Cruddas, 2014. Discussion of the “white working class” as a distinct group that loses out because of multiculturalism has been common in the last few years. For a discussion of the problems with this argument, see Choonara, 2013, pp295-296, and Taylor, 2009.

53: NatCen, 2011 and 2013.

54: Blinder, 2012, p5.

55: Home Office, 2013, p2. For an overview of attacks on the legal rights of migrants since the late 1980s, see Webber, 2012.

56: Grayson, 2013.

57: Goodwin, 2014.

58: Collier, 2013, p21.

59: For a discussion of the origins and changing forms of racism, see Olende, 2013, and Callinicos, 1993.

60: See Barker, 1981.

61: Marx, 1870.

62: The linking of African-Caribbean people and crime was a key part of the racism of the 1970s and 1980s: see Gilroy, 2002, pp84-145. It is a theme repeated by the “liberal” Paul Collier who says: “Jamaican culture is among the most violent in the world… Guns are normal, so it is unsurprising that Jamaican immigrants brought their gun culture with them”-Collier, 2013, p80.

63: See Ferguson, 2014.

64: See, for example, the recent row over halal meat, or the claims of an Islamic “takeover” of schools in Birmingham.

65: Ross and Dominiczak, 2014.

66: Olende, 2014.

67: Wintour, 2014; Hutton and Milburn, 2014.

68: Field and others, 2014.

69: Bennett, 2014.

70: See Abbott, 2014.

71: On the ideological arguments, see Kimber, 2014a, and 2014b.

72: Go to


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