Friday, 7 November 2014

A Complex Revolution

The Revolt on the Right is a bit more complex than angry old men in Essex

As Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party goes from strength to strength, there’s a book that is also causing a bit of stir that claims to explain why the party is proving so popular. In a nutshell, the book aims to show that UKIP are capturing the “left behind” voters – older, less well educated, white and largely male voters who fear change and have deep misgivings about mass immigration.

Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (Extremism and Democracy)
Contrary to what I expected they don’t follow the line that UKIP is the respectable face of racism, or attempt to smear them as “the BNP in suits.” In fact they go to some effort to point out that this is not the case, which is refreshing.

The authors Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin are respected academics and as you would expect the book is heavy on footnotes, and uses reams of data to make it’s point. It starts off with an interesting and well written history of the UK Independence Party from it’s founding by Dr Alan Sked to their meteoric rise under Farage since 2010.

It then starts to dissect the support of UKIP, and this is really where the probles begin. In so many graphs and tables, the authors isolate UKIP support to be strongest in the hopelessly broad category of people who are over 55, white, unskilled, semi-skilled, unemployed or retired. They score less amongst senior management, academics, professionals and the young. Not really surprising in itself.

What is disappointing is that they don’t really dig any deeper than these initial, and from an established political party’s point of view quite comforting findings. This is where we leave the laboratory and find ourselves at an Islington dinner table. UKIP supporters are angry old men in Essex. They might be numerous but they are being replaced by a new generation of outward looking, internationally minded and highly educated young people who embrace the EU as part of the modern world.

They don’t seem to dig much deeper into the vast social demographic where UKIP’s support lies, by distinguishing between say the unemployed and highly skilled manual workers, or public or private sector employees or any of the other useful distinctions which might help predict the fortunes of UKIP and their rivals in future.

On the issue of age they point out stronger support amongst older people and appear to casually assume that this is determined by the year of birth. I would challenge this assumption on the basis that in the 15 years that I have been following UKIP’s fortunes, and having myself moved from the younger demographic to the middle (and again incredibly broad) 35-55 age range, I’ve seen many of my peers become much more – depending on your point of view - cynical or realistic about the organization, and support for UKIP rise accordingly. This, at least anecdotally suggests that it’s less to do with a generational shift and more attributable to the outlook and life experiences of people at certain times of their life.

Of course to go into these matters in sufficient detail would be far beyond the scope of a highly readable and often enjoyable book. But to skim over them completely seems in a sense to risk falling in to the very conceit they point out in the main stream parties.

The Clacton by election proved a massive coup for this book, which cited Clacton as UKIP’s most winnable seat in the country. However in Rochester and Strood, 271st on the list according to Ford and Goodwin, Mark Reckless appears to be proving that UKIP’s appeal is perhaps a little bit more complex.