By James Butler
Jan 13, 2015
At the outset of 2015, a glance across Europe shows that left-wing parties are likely to gain significant ground in this year's elections. Yet despite five years of austerity here, things aren't as sunny for the left in Britain as they are in Greece or Spain. Labour chaseTory votes, committing to cut after cut. The Greens, fresh from attacking the wages of bin workers in Brighton, aim to profit from a "green surge" by maybe winning a seat in Norwich – which would bring their grand total up to two. Meanwhile, UKIP seem likely not only to slither up the polls but to drag every political debate further to the right.
UKIP remain something of a mystery to the left – most explanations for their success are awkward adaptations of historic theories about how racist parties gain power, for instance, that they exploit economic crisis by finding a scapegoat, or that with the help of a craven media they make previously taboo ideas respectable. But UKIP are also an object of envy. That's why terrified policy wonks in Labour backrooms try to compete with them by getting a touch more racist on immigration, or a bit more hateful towards those who claim benefits.
It's also why political hacks write articles on the need for a "UKIP of the left". The idea has reared its head on numerous occasions over the last few years of austerity gloom and is sure to do so again as the election nears. But I'm already tired of the idea. The left wishes it could be more like the right? When you put it like that you can see how counter-intuitive it is. Wanting a UKIP of the left is like wanting a cancer that makes you healthier – it just doesn't work like that.
What people mean when they say they want a UKIP of the left is that they'd like to see a bit more pandering to racism under the guise of "realism". That or perhaps a more charismatic leader, someone with the ability to burn Nigel Farage with a couple of righteous zingers on Have I Got News For You.
One of the closest historical analogues to Nigel Farage is Pierre Poujade, the leader of a mid-20th century populist movement in France. Given the ego-stroking name "Poujadism", in the same way some refer to "Faragism", Poujade's movement distrusted "elites", loathed taxation and whipped up racism and xenophobia among their constituency. Like Farage, Poujade gave voice to popular contempt for a political system that seemed remote. He did it by decrying the loss of empire, bemoaning decadent intellectuals and branding members of the chamber of deputies pederasts – Farage hasn't called an MP a paedo yet but you can see the similarities.
But there are differences as well: whereas Poujade was genuinely an outsider to the political system, Farage is a product of the same elites he makes capital attacking. UKIP themselves are a very uneasy alliance of oddball, zero-tax, urban "libertarians", fringe shire racists, and a sizeable portion of an alienated working class outside of the major cities. One thing both UKIP and the Poujadists have in common is their relation to organised fascists; though the party continue to pay lip-service to their distance from out-and-out fascists, a number of former National Front and BNP organisers have swollen their ranks. They also have to keep on turfing out members for making racist remarks –such as the councillor who said she had a "problem" with "negroes" because there was "something about their faces" – without acknowledging why such people might be attracted to the party in the first place.
In 1956, Poujade's party took 12 percent of the popular vote at the general election – around the same number UKIP are polling today. This result has occasionally confused political scientists, who generally expect far-right victories in times of economic crisis, rather than the years of growth that preceded 1956. But that growth was misleading, and a bad way to measure the major economic shifts that were happening in France and the rest of Europe at the time: major urbanisation and the emergence of large supermarkets threatened the small-time shopkeepers and farmers who made up Poujade's base.
This might suggest that it's not quite right to look at the 2008 financial crisis and its ongoing aftermath as the reason for UKIP's success. Much of UKIP's key voter base have felt abandoned by government for far longer than five years; though they are different to Poujade's shopkeeper, many have seen employment gradually drain out of their communities, their wages stagnate and their infrastructure crumble. The easy credit, cheap goods and central government bungs that covered significant shifts in labour patterns over the last two decades have now largely disappeared, and the discontent they kept simmering now risks bursting into full-blown social reaction.
It's idiotic to think that UKIP's success is just because their leader is on TV a lot, says things racists like and has something resembling a personality. Sure, a servile media and a horde of indistinguishable party automatons manning the green benches help Farage to portray himself as a political insurgent, but that's not the whole story. What unites the journalists and party-wonks calling for a UKIP of the left is a suspicion that people outside the political class are too stupid to know what's good for them. Treating UKIP voters simply as idiots incapable of telling truth from reality is to mimic the derision and abandonment they feel coming from just about every part of government and the press. To think that all they need is a better lie – socialist bullshit rather than reactionary conservative bullshit – so they line up behind your party instead of UKIP is purely cynical.
Some of the problem here is in the way most political journalists – and certainly most politicians – think about politics. They treat politics almost as if it were a board game, where it's natural that all participants adopt positions out of electoral expediency and in which left and right are distinguishable only by their leaders, who largely agree on how to "do" politics. To them, people outside of politics exist only as points to be lined up behind political "professionals", who throw a cut to a welfare programme here or an expensive new infrastructure project there – this bread or that circus – to keep their base happy.
It's only in this model of politics that you can look at what UKIP do and say, "We want to do that, but on the left. The format will be the same, but with nationalisation not nationalism, and hating on bankers, not on immigrants." It is a politics that treats the public as either idiots too stupid to be led by anything but a "noble lie", or, if they will not buy the lie, just a problem to be managed.
Veterans of the left look to the crumbling of the labour movement to explain falling working-class opposition to UKIP-like ideas in everyday life. They hark back to a time when the unemployed British worker believed himself to have more in common with a migrant worker than with a privately educated stockbroker who is also British.
Nostalgic left movements – like Left Unity, based on Ken Loach's film the Spirit of 45, or the People's Assembly, which has similar ideas – try to compete with UKIP over visions of a lost past. UKIP want to take us back to a Britain just after the Second World War because there were fewer immigrants and women in jobs, whereas the nostalgic left want to take us back to the same time because we built the NHS and some working-class people were somewhat better off. It's too easy to mythologise this period, to forget that just days into their term a Labour government sent troops in to deal with striking dockers, or that they collaborated with the TUC to repress wages, or that during the second half of their term Labour signed off a huge increase in military spending and had a key role in developing NATO.
But nostalgia is natural terrain for the right, for whom the world is ever decaying from its former glory. The left is strongest when it stakes a claim to the future. The right would not be able to compete if the left were to shift the conversation on to, say, imagining a world where unnecessary work is eliminated, much of what remains is automated, and we're left to sit around sharing newly discovered cheese varieties, creating ever more niche club nights and exploring the oceans – or whatever makes for a happy, fulfilled humanity.
This is arguably a more attractive vision than that of the nostalgic-left reverting to everybody being guaranteed a stultifying nine-to-five job in a factory and the comforting blanket of social democracy – social democracy that flourished, at least in part, on the back of cheap labour flowing in to Britain from its former colonies. It's more realistic, too; whereas European social democracy requires an "outside" of cheap labour which is rapidly disappearing, the technology to begin a transition out of scarcity already exists – it's just a matter of who gets to control its development.
Perhaps well-intentioned nostalgia is exactly what attracts the fossils and bureaucrats of the trade union movement to groups like Left Unity and the People's Assembly. They're the perfect venue for audience-pleasing sabre-rattlers who have for five years promised"mass civil disobedience" and failed time and again to deliver.
Challenging UKIP, rather than trying to ape them, means facing reality with more sobriety than any political partly currently can. That doesn't mean talking about immigration in as racist a way as possible. It means facing the reality of decades of disinvestment in a number of English towns outside of the major cities. It means figuring out how to deal with a coming parliament that is already locked in to further major cuts to services. It means working out what to do when automation takes all our jobs.
Britain can deal with all these things, to some extent. It can expand workfare programmes, stagger through and defer financial crises yet again, but only on the promise of greater misery for the many. As one of the 20th century's clearest analysts of social crisis, Walter Benjamin, once put it: the catastrophe is that it just goes on like this.
If there is something to be said for fantasies of a "UKIP of the left", it's that they rest on a recognition that ideas far to the left of mainstream politics enjoy enormous popular support. (For instance, the idea of a housing rent-cap as a first step to decommodifying housing entirely.) But what the fantasies don't tackle is a deep and well-founded scepticism towards politics and politicians, and a public that believes that political promises are made only to be broken. For these ideas to have force, they require a new way of doing politics. The job requires the left to be everything that UKIP is not. It doesn't require the left to trade on false hope rather than fear, but to build from the ground up a movement no longer reliant upon politicians' promises but capable of grasping the future for itself.