Thursday, May 02, 2013

The revolt of the petty bourgeoisie

The idea that a middle class protest party of the Right is polling 22% in the UK seems rather improbable.  Of course, the poll was commissioned by a right-wing lobby, the Coalition for Marriage, and may have been skewed in all sorts of ways.  Even so, the stable polling figure for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is now over ten percent, and the last UKIP was taking this much support was in 2004, before Kilroy-Silk joined in a subtle left-wing entryist plot, posing as a gaffeur and splitting the party.  (And let's just remember what Kilroy-Silk looked like at this glittering zenith: see left).

I describe UKIP as a middle class party.  I would suggest that this is true of the core of the party membership.  Godrey Bloom MEP's message to his party bosses about the difficulties of controlling the party membership indicates its class basis very well: "we have doctors who fancy themselves as tax experts, painters and decorators who know all about strategic defence issues, and branch chairmen, retired dentists, who understand the most intricate political solutions for the nation." 

Electorally, however, the party's support appears to be spread evenly across social classes [pdf] at the moment - provided you are prepared to use social grading as a proxy for class.  This is indicative of the way that the party has built broad support by conjoining the insecurely affluent lower middle classes with sections of the working class.  Though the pundits tend to assume this means UKIP is picking up 'Labour types', I suspect they're victims of the 'ecological fallacy' - that is, just because certain voters come from a certain social class, a certain region and a certain profile that is typical of a type of Labour voter, it is assumed they themselves were Labour.  (Connotatively linked to this idea is a whole series of myths about the 'white working class'.)  I suspect that UKIP, like the BNP, mainly win over working class Tories rather than ex-Labourites.

What cements the disparate elements of UKIP are the usual thematics: mass immigration is linked with the insecurity, social decay and racial ambiguation of the once 'respectable' working class; the social distress of small businessmen is linked to Eurocrats riding their backs, and scroungers on the welfare teat; the stasis, corruption and high-handedness of parliament is linked with the rule of politically correct Metropolitan elites who impose unpopular, un-commonsensical policies while giving the country away to every sort of foreigner.  And so on.

Anyway, as a result of this success, the party has finally attracted some media attention to its more outr√© elements.  We don't need to linger on these: the usual screenshots of Nazi salutes, knife-wielding loons, crusader posturing, and Holocaust-denial - all the staples of right-wing subcultures.  If you want a sense of how the party's heavyweights think, consider one of the party's major recent gains for UKIP: the defection of Roger Helmer MEP from the Tories.  Helmer has the usual fat compendium of petty prejudices and thick comments under his belt.  Look him up on rape, climate change, homosexuality, or indeed deploying the armed forces against civilians.  No, we shouldn't linger on these examples, not because they are unimportant, but because it induces a terrible smugness.  It is simple enough to point and laugh at their 'fruitcakes', but if we're all that smart they shouldn't be polling in the double digits.

However hateful (and actually impracticable, from the capitalist point of view) their agenda is, I think there is an intelligent strategy behind this assortment of kooks.  Essentially, I think the UKIP leadership are consciously seeking to provide a milieu in which the fragments of the hard and far right, maintained in disabling division for a decade despite propitious circumstances, can circulate and congeal around a common agenda.  If the party is filled with ex-BNP members and other assorted members of the far right, it can be assumed that this is because they are among the sorts of forces that Farage et al will need to confederate if they are to displace the Cameronite centre.  After all, there is absolutely nothing new about UKIP being stuffed with assorted neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers: go back and look at the news reports during their last peak around 2004, and it's the same story.  They may not represent the centre of gravity within UKIP, but they are an element of the fragile coalition which the leadership are constructing.  

One side effect of this, of course, will probably be to give schismatic and weather-beaten British fascists a space in which to recuperate, in the revitalising ambience of the reactionary petty bourgeoisie.  But that is someone else's problem, not UKIP's.  So, Farage is prepared to take the heat for the behaviour and affiliations of UKIP members and candidates, selectively sacrificing the more extreme offenders while offering the thinnest of rationalisations for the others.  Lately, these rationalisations included the claim that a seig-heiling election candidate was actually imitating a potted plant, and that the disproportionately large numbers of other hair-raisers and arm-raisers was just a product of a lax recruitment policy - some got through the net, nothing more.  And Farage is to an extent right to think he can get away with such flimsy, shrugging responses.  If all he wants is to mobilise the widest possible coalition of reaction in Britain, he knows that the people he is appealing to don't really care all that much about Nazis: not as much as they care about purging the country of Romanians/Bulgarians/Poles, Muslims/Pakistanis/Asians, strikers/rioters/criminals, etc.

UKIP is not without its allies and outriders within the Conservative Party.  Lord Tebbit, the last of the Thatcherite hard men, continually defies the Conservative establishment by urging right-wing voters to back anti-European parties.  He did so in 2009, just as the Tories were supposed to be making a comeback, and he's doing so now.  His reasoning is simple: he wants to force the party back to the hard Right: on taxes, immigration and Europe, above all.  Politicians of the Labour Left would never be so ruthless, hindered as they are by sentimentality and a certain vulnerability to emotional blackmail.  But Tebbit isn't stupid: he is playing a long game.  Even if it costs the Tories in the short run, there is every reason to expect that radicalising the Tory base will bring dividends in the long run.  Not only will it pull the whole political field to the Right, but if it has the feel of a real insurgency it might help create the basis for a renewed 'popular' conservatism, helping to slow or even reverse the Tories' secular decline.  And if the Tory establishment resists the Rightist lurch, then further decampments from the backbenches, and a larger political realignment, are not impossible.

So, this is UKIP: a fragile, fruitcake alliance it may be, but it is one with an intelligible purpose and strategy.