Austerity, the labour movement and the rise of UKIP

By Sacha Ismail

The context for the rise of UKIP was set by two things: their sustained electoral intervention over two decades, and the failure of the labour movement to fight insecurity and austerity.

UKIP was founded in 1993; the first general election it stood in was 1997, when it got 0.3 per cent. In 2001 it got 1.5 per cent; in 2005 2.2 pc; in 2010 3.1 per cent. It also used European elections and local elections to build up its profile and base of support. Perhaps because opposition to the EU is one of its central focuses, it has done better in European election: as far back as 1999 it got 7 per cent; by 2009, 16.6 per cent. UKIP has had ups and downs, splits, crises. But it has been able to weather these in part because it has a consistent project, consistently worked at.

UKIP built a small but significant base during the high period of Blairism: a Labour government promoting privatisation, growing inequality and increasing insecurity for huge layers of the working class, simultaneously allowing massive immigration but promoting “tough on migrants” (eg anti-asylum seeker) politcs. The Labour left was marginal; the unions, shamefully, accepted Blair’s agenda and wasted thirteen years.

The left outside Labour failed too: instead of building consistently, over time, in the way UKIP did, it failed to even maintain the same profile and organisation between two general elections. The Socialist Alliance first stood in the 2001 general election; by 2005 it no longer existed. This was followed by a series of manipulative fronts for particular left groups, each miles from anything like uniting the left and from class-struggle socialist politics.

Clearly UKIP was aided by the prevalence of nationalist, anti-migrant, etc, ideas in society, ideas promoted by the “mainstream” parties, the media and so on. It was also aided by the failures of the labour movement. This became starkly clear in the period of its dramatic take off.

During the first two years of the Coalition, UKIP support was not much higher than in 2010 or even 2005. The last five polls of 2011 had it on an average of 3.6 per cent: last one 4 per cent. A year later, UKIP’s last-five average was 10 per cent: last poll 15 per cent.

2011 was the year which saw the most fightback against the Coalition’s cuts drive. The student revolt of winter 2010-11 was quickly followed by an enormous TUC demonstration in March; then half a million public sector strikers in June; then more than two million in November. This was also the year which saw the beginning of the “Arab Spring”, with political Islam on the back foot and big workers’ movements in Tunisia and Egypt. It felt like things were moving, because they were. The left grew.

Soon the “Arab Spring” turned sour, as counter-revolutionary forces fought back and political Islam reasserted itself. In Britain, having insisted in putting all the movement’s eggs in the basket of the public sector pensions fight, the trade union bureaucracies closed the dispute down.

The Tories were emboldened and every struggle against austerity was made much harder. The Labour leadership became entrenched in a pro-cuts position.

That situation and the feelings of disappointment and hopelessness it created were the context for UKIP’s populist-nationalist revolt against the “establishment” to take off and gain traction with huge numbers of working-class people.

From March-April 2012 its polling started to climb. Labour was in the lead for a long time after that: how it lost that lead to the Tories is another, but related, story.