UKIP’s Working Class Voters and the Tory Victories in Labour Heartlands

Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin in their book Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support For The Radical Right in Britain (Abingdon: Routledge 2014) argue that UKIP’s brief appearance as a new political force was due to it developing strong working class support. It articulated the frustration with contemporary politics of the people left behind. These were generally older, less educated workers, marginalised through de-industrialisation and social change, particularly immigration and European integration. They write

UKIP’s revolt is 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 to 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.

Support for UKIP does not line up in a straightforward way with traditional notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’, but reflects a divide between a political mainstream dominated by a more financially secure and highly educated middle class, and a more insecure and precarious working class, which feels its concerns have been written out of political debate. In a sense, UKIP’s rise represents the re-emergence of class conflicts that Tony Blair’s New Labour and David Cameron’s compassionate Conservatism submerged but never resolved – conflicts that reflect basic differences in the position and prospects of citizens in different walks of life. Before the arrival of UKIP, the marginalisation of these conflicts had already produced historic changes in political behaviour. Blue-collar voters turned their backs on politics en masse, causing a collapse in electoral turn-out to record lows, and fuelling a surge in support for the extreme right BNP, making it briefly the most successful extreme right party in the history of British elections. Since 2004, Farage and his foot soldiers have channelled the same social divisions into a far more impressive electoral rebellion….

(T)he potential for a political insurgency of this kind has existed for a long time. Its seeds lay among groups of voters who struggled with the destabilising and threatening changes brought in by de-industrialisation, globalisation and, later, European integration and mass immigration. These groups always occupied a precarious position on Britain’s economic ladder, and now, as their incomes stagnated and their prospects for social mobility receded, they found themselves being left behind.

Many within this left-behind army also grew up before Britain experienced the recent waves of immigration and before the country joined the EU, and their political and social values reflect this. This is a group of voters who are more inclined to believe in an ethnic conception of British national identity, defined by birth and ancestry, and who have vivid memories of a country that once stood independent and proudly apart from Europe. They also came of age in an era where political parties offered competing and sharply contrasting visions of British society, and had strong incentives to listen to, and respect, their traditional supporters. Shaped by these experiences, today these voters look out at a fundamentally different Britain: ethnically and culturally diverse; cosmopolitan; integrated into a transnational, European political network; and dominated by a university-educated and more prosperous middle class that hold a radically different set of values, all of which is embraced and celebrated by those who rule over them. This is not a country that the rebels recognise, nor one they like. (pp. 270-1).

Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters believe that the defeat in the recent general election was primarily due to Brexit and Boris Johnson’s presentation of the Tories as the party that would ‘get Brexit done’. Craig Gent, in his article for Novara Media, ‘Learning the Lessons of Labour’s Northern Nightmare Will Take Longer Than A Weekend’ argues that the northern communities, who turned to the Tories were those which voted for Brexit. He writes

The bare facts are these: Labour’s election campaign did not look the same across northern towns as it did on left Twitter. Swathes of towns that said they wanted Brexit in 2016 still want Brexit. Those towns by and large felt patronised by the offer of a second referendum, a policy whose public support has always been inflated by the gaseous outpourings of its most ardent supporters. And two years on from 2017, the novelty of Corbynmania had thoroughly worn off, with his increasingly stage-managed media appearances beginning to rub people up the wrong way.

See: https://novaramedia.com/2019/12/17/learning-the-lessons-of-labours-northern-nightmare-will-take-longer-than-a-weekend/

It’s also been argued that working class voters turned to the Tories in the north and midlands because the Leave vote was primarily a rejection of the political establishment, and in those areas, Labour was the political establishment.

Some of the features of UKIP’s working class supporters obviously don’t fit those, who voted Tory last Thursday. The people voting for Johnson weren’t just the over-55s, for example, and so wouldn’t have had the glowing memories of Britain before we entered the EU, or EEC as it then was. And it should be remembered that UKIP was never as large or as powerful as its supporters and cheerleaders in the lamestream media presented it. But clearly there are a large chunk of the British electorate, who did feel ignored by Labour’s Blairite leadership and shared their elders’ impressions of a Britain that was powerful and prosperous outside the EU, and which had been actively harmed by its entry.

But Boris won’t do anything for them, except possibly make a few token gestures towards improving conditions for those communities. It will mean hard work, but Labour can win those communities back.

But it means not taking them for granted, as Gent’s article states, and building a solid working class base once again through community activism and campaigning.

And not leaving them behind to concentrate on marginals and Tory swing voters, as New Labour did.

 

 

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