With nearly 60% of the vote, this week saw the election of the first member of the British parliament from the right-wing anti-European UK Independence Party (UKIP). This follows on from UKIP’s strong showing in last May’s European elections where it emerged as the leading single party with four and a half million votes and 24 out the UK?s 73 seats in the European parliament.
With such a strong level of public support, readers may not understand why this should be UKIP?s first member of the British parliament. This can be explained by four main factors. Firstly, the European elections in Britain are run on a common Euro-wide proportional representation system which directly allocates seats according to a party?s share of the vote, while elections to the British parliament (like the USA) are run on a peculiar first-past-the-post system which heavily discriminates against minority parties.
The second factor is that many voters have often seen the Euro elections as an opportunity to cast their votes for fringe parties as a protest against the mainstream parties which they usually return to in their national elections. Sometimes there is similar factor at work in by-elections to the British parliament to fill vacancies created by the death or resignation of existing members of parliament.
A special factor in the Clacton by-election was that UKIP?s candidate was already the local member of parliament there and following his defection from the Conservative Party to UKIP had resigned his seat in order to test his level of support as a candidate for his new party. Thus UKIP?s candidate already had big name recognition in the area and a local personal following.
Media Support for UKIP
Last but not least, UKIP?s victory has been greatly helped by the blanket media coverage that British television and newspapers have been giving to UKIP for a long time. They have clearly been doing so as to provide a handy right-wing, racist, anti-establishment safety valve for the rising discontent of the majority of the British population. In this way they have sought to prevent the majority of voters shifting over to Labour or even going further to the Left.
It is significant that UKIP?s propaganda in this election was not only against Europe and immigration but also against the cuts in health spending and the out-of-touch mainstream parties in Westminster. For the latter, UKIP is calling for political reform including the introduction of rules allowing people to recall and replace their members of parliament between elections when they feel that they have broken their election pledges or disgraced themselves thought corruption and so on. This is something the Left have also called for in the past but in common with other democratic issues has not been a priority in the Left?s agenda.
Typical of UKIP?s populist propaganda was their leader Nigel Farrage?s comment on the by-election victory ?We have a career political class of college kids who have never had jobs in their lives with absolutely no connection to ordinary people and how they are struggling. We need new people. We need change, real change.? This could be straight out of the Labour Left?s critique of the Labour Party?s elitist parliamentary setup.
On the same day as the Clacton by-election there was another parliamentary election up in Manchester following the death of the local Labour MP. In a strongly working class area UKIP came close to defeating the Labour Party candidate in a very low turnout of voters. In this case Labour?s share of the vote went up slightly from the General Election in 2010 while most of Conservative and Liberal voters swung behind UKIP. While Labour did win the seat it was nowhere near the kind of result that promises an outright victory in next year?s General Election. Indicating this, John Mann, centre-left Labour MP and previous supporter of the Labour Leader reacted to last Thursday?s election results with a tweet: ?If Ed Miliband does not broaden the Labour coalition to better include working class opinion then we cannot win a majority government.?
An Uncertain Future
Looking ahead to the General Election due to be held next May, it is difficult to predict the outcome. For one thing, there is still nine months to go and even a week can be a long time in politics.
Obviously, the ongoing state of the economy will heavily influence the mood of next year?s electorate. In comparison to many countries in mainland Europe, Britain has been experiencing an economic recovery. But this is extremely weak and fragile with August?s manufacturing output only showing a growth of 0.1% which is down from July?s pathetic 0.3% increase. Indeed, Britain?s recovery hasn?t even brought production in real terms back to its pre-Great Recession level of 2007.
More importantly, while the rich elite in Britain are celebrating massive gains working people are not feeling the benefit of the recovery. Quite the opposite. With the exception of some lucky home-owners benefiting from low interest rates on their mortgages and a bubble in housing prices, most people have seen a steady fall in living standards along with major cuts to their welfare services from the Conservative-led coalition government.
The Cameron-Clegg government and their media mouthpieces have pulled off a massive confidence trick in convincing a large section of the public that Britain?s main problem is its public debt which can only be solved by cutbacks in welfare spending. In this they have been acting in common with governments across the European Union. As Thomas Fazi in his book ?The Battle for Europe: How an Elite Hijacked a Continent? put it, the ruling class in Europe have managed to take a ?crisis of neo-liberalism and unregulated finance? and transform it into ?a crisis of excessive government spending and unstainable welfare systems.?
However, despite all its cuts the Conservative government have hardly been able to reduce the deficit, and keep having to put off into the distant future the planned date for achieving its spending targets. What has become clearer and clearer is that the government?s budget cuts are part of a strategy of further transferring wealth from the mass of British people over to the tiny majority who own and control society.
Labour refuse to take the Lead
This situation should be a gift to the Labour Party leaders who only have to point out the obvious nature of the cuts and promise to completely reverse this course, to rule in favour of the majority rather than the few. This would be tremendously popular with the majority of British people and cut across the opportunist appeal of protest parties like UKIP.
But the Labour leaders are still stuck in the right-wing social democratic mould, accepting neo-liberal arguments and more fearful of upsetting the rich ruling establishment and its media servants than in actually winning votes and power. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has actually said as much, admitting that by promising to reverse the cuts Labour could gain temporary popularity and win the next election. But he says that he doesn?t ?want to make promises he can?t keep?. What a principled stand! So instead the Labour leadership has defied all the pressure from the labour movement and community organisations across Britain and refused to give a commitment to reverse the cuts. Even accepting that they will have to ?honour? (!?) them once in power.
With a ?lead? like this is it any wonder that Labour?s support in the opinion polls has fallen back so far to the point where they are neck and neck with the Conservatives? The increasingly frustrated and discontented electorate see too little difference between the two main parties.
Perspective for 2015
The high level of support for UKIP in the European elections and these recent by-elections will no doubt fall back in the General Election next year as protest votes in the past have always done. But it may not collapse as much as has been expected especially as another Conservative MP who joined UKIP has also resigned and must be expected to win the forthcoming by-election. So UKIP may hope to continue its winning run close to the election and thereby give it an unusual level of momentum.
The key thing is whether UKIP can convince the voters, especially those against Europe and the Westminster establishment, that voting for it will not end up being a wasted vote under Britain punishing electoral system. Another factor will be the media. It will be interesting to see what line they take in the election. That said the 2010 election showed that the new social media was having a much bigger impact and the pro-conservative media much less so. This trend is likely to be even more pronounced in next year?s election.
The situation is especially dangerous for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Despite all its claims, UKIP?s core support is among conservative voters and sections of disillusioned Liberals. Normally, the dramatic fall in Liberal support would be expected to help the Conservatives more than Labour, but in this situation the better that UKIP does in next year?s election the more likely it will damage the Conservatives and help Labour. Certainly, we can expect that UKIP will do far better than the 3% that Goldsmith’s anti-EU Referendum Party achieved in the 1997 election. And this could be enough to create a small Labour majority or a hung parliament with the nationalist parties (from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) holding the balance.
In such circumstances Labour will form a minority government with echoes of Labour’s crisis-ridden administration of 1974-1979. In such circumstances, rather than the perspective which has been raised of a Left version of UKIP emerging under Labour (a party which will get none of the media publicity that has been decisive in building up UKIP’s support), there are possibilities for a revolt within Labour along similar lines that are developing within the French Socialist Party. Interestingly, Labour leader Ed Miliband appears to be cast from the same mould as French President Francois Hollande and may face the same fate of shattered credibility and humiliation as his counterpart across the English Channel.