Monday, May 19, 2014

Ed Miliband is 'Not A Muppet'

This illustrates so well why the parliamentary political establishment cannot stop UKIP.  The consistently excellent James O'Brien has just handed any UKIP opponent Nigel Farage's head on a platter, nicely bisected the better to expose the cuckoo within.  And yet there is a consensus across parties, from Eric Pickles to Ed Miliband, that Farage and UKIP are Not Racists.  And if you can't call Farage and UKIP out as racists, then you can't defeat them.

To be perfectly honest, it's not even clear how much they want to defeat UKIP.  Obviously the petty bourgeois reactionaries could be problematic if they really start to threaten Britain's membership of the EU, but for now they are pulling British politics to the Right and decanting elements of popular discontent into something which - for the dominant parties - is preferable to a movement of the left.

Still, let's assume for the sake of argument that UKIP are a nuisance that "the political class and their mates in the media" (dixit Farage) would like to neutralise.  The major strategy of Labour and the Liberal Democrats at least is to call Farage out for 'demagoguery' and misrepresentation.  Clegg's dismal performance in debate with an extremely assured Farage centred on his attempts to 'expose' UKIP's lies.  Danny Alexander's recent crowing about the immigration figures was similarly based on an attempt to show UKIP up as fearmongering liars.

This is a stupid strategy.  So what if you prove that there are actually fewer Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants in the UK than previously thought?  If you make that the basis of your argument, you accept that 'they' are a problem to be minimised: the fewer the better.  Moreover, the point of free movement of labour is that the numbers will fluctuate and sometimes there will be sharp increases in the migration of specific groups.  If you've already conceded, explicitly or implicitly, that 'they' are a problem, then such spikes provide easy points of intervention for UKIP and its allies.

Further as I've already said, the numbers game is strictly secondary, in the service of a moral argument.  Remember what I said?  Remember?

"UKIP are good at the numbers game, precisely because they understand that it is a purely rhetorical exercise.  The right figure is that which a) efficiently demonstrates a point, b) tells people what they expect to hear and confirms their 'worst fears' (even if they derive an obscure pleasure from it), and yet which is c) time- and effort-consuming to track down and rebut.  The right figure is just an element of a morality fable."  

Called it.  The figures are part of a moral argument, and as long as their moral premises are accepted or left unchallenged, what does it matter if one or two of their figures are wrong?

Now here's the problem.  Nigel Farage is very good, usually, at respecting the terms of the media spectacle.  He knows that he doesn't have to explicitly articulate many of the racist propositions that galvanise UKIP supporters.  His base already knows what he stands for, and he doesn't have to remind them every day.  He's one of them, after all.  And as regards bigotry toward immigrants, the populist-right media thoughtfully ploughs that ideological terrain every day, so that an aspiring politician need only gently, tactfully allude to such themes and everyone who is supposed to get what he means will get what he means.

Farage's tactic is to speak allusively, and keep the waters muddied.  For example, he has often suggested that there is a problem with the 'quality' of immigrants coming to the UK now.  This condenses both the crude economic argument about foreign workers undercutting British workers, and cultural stereotypes about south-eastern Europeans which can be found in the newspapers every day.  But he doesn't actually have to say what it means.  And having said this, he will typically throw in a positive comment about migrants from India, as if to say "how could I be racist when I actually prefer immigrants with darker skins?"

So, when Farage lets the mask slip and tactlessly suggests that Romanians are more likely to be criminals, this is precisely the point at which to hit them over their 'big picture' argument.

Of course he isn't saying anything that the Express and even right-wing Tory MPs haven't already said.  But he's fucked up.  UKIP's leader needed, due to the reputation his party has, to be cleaner than clean, particularly if the aim is to add to the party's existing base.  And he isn't.  He's just brutally exposed what he means by the 'quality' of immigration.

Farage is a racist: just say it.  Even The Sun is saying it (and let's face it, they should know).   If you don't say it, you miss a vital tactical opportunity, and actually help remove the stigma from such statements and normalise them.

I can understand Eric Pickles hesitating to call Farage a racist.  He knows very well that many of his colleagues have said similar things.  In all likelihood, he thinks similar things.  Moreover, the Tories will have a direct interest in carefully re-appropriating the themes of nationalist racism in order to take votes back from UKIP.  Their line cannot be one of straightforward repudiation.

But Ed Miliband is in a different situation.  Whatever Labour's temptation to cave in to the Right, its base doesn't actually respond well to racism.  And yet.  And yet.  This is Ed Miliband we're talking about here.  And it's not just that he personally has the killer instinct of a stunned goldfish.  It's that he is the effect of a structure, a political machine that is built around the internalised defeats and Stockholm Syndrome of the British labour movement.  A machinery based on a politics so degraded that it can't even effectively challenge a racist spiv like Farage, never mind break with the post-Thatcherite consensus.  This is neither tragedy nor farce; it is simply grim.

So I give up.  Literally.  Forget it.  We're fucked.  If anyone wants me, I shall be licking hammers.