Viewpoint: UKIP’s Fox in the Henhouse

Viewpoint: UKIP’s Fox in the Henhouse

James Hampshire, University of Sussex

For once, the ‘historic’ cliché seems appropriate. Last month, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won the 2014 European elections with 27.5 per cent of the popular vote and 24 out of 73 UK seats in the European Parliament – the first time since 1906 that a party other than the Conservatives or Labour has won a national election.

Far right parties did well across Europe, notably in France where Marine Le Pen’s Front National also came first, but the impact of UKIP’s victory is especially acute in Britain, where nativist populism has hitherto failed to make much of an electoral impact, at least at the national level. In this regard, potentially more significant than UKIP’s European win – an ‘easy hit’ even according to its leader, Nigel Farage – was its successes in the local elections held on the same day. Farage intends to use the strong performances in certain local councils, as well as the party’s string of second places in recent by-elections, to build a concentration of votes in target constituencies for the general election next year. It’s a tall order, and the prospect of UKIP MPs in the House of Commons is far from a foregone conclusion, but there is no doubt that Farage’s populist anti-immigration, anti-EU party (the order is deliberate) has shaken up British politics.

As little as ten years ago, Europe and immigration were not the political hydra they are today. In the heyday of New Labour, immigration was certainly salient, but it was swan-barbecuing asylum-seekers rather than Polish plumbers who bore the brunt of tabloid ire. Go further back in political history and today’s European migration debate seems remoter still: in the 1975 EEC referendum free movement was barely mentioned.

All this has changed since European enlargement in 2004. While Europeans from the so-called A8 countries would have come to Britain eventually anyway, the Labour government’s decision not to impose transitional controls on access to the British labour market (the only country apart from Ireland and Sweden not to do so) resulted in a substantial and rapid increase in immigration. The average annual inflow of EU citizens (excluding Britons) was 67,000 in the period 1997-2003. After the A8 decision this leapt to around 170,000 (for the period 2004-2012). By 2012, net EU migration accounted for approximately 40 per cent of total net migration. The A8 migrants are young (53 per cent are under 30) and relatively highly educated (they are more likely to have a university degree than British citizens). The vast majority migrate for, and find, work. But unlike Western European migrants, who are over-represented among high-income jobs, most A8 migrants find jobs in low-income sectors, such as hospitality, manufacturing, and agriculture and food-processing. And unlike post-war migrations, which were largely for settlement and often to large conurbations, many A8 migrants move back and forth between the UK and mainland Europe, and many of them have moved to regions with little prior experience of immigration.

The impact of EU migration, and A8 migration in particular, has been hotly debated. Most studies come to the conclusion that the aggregate impact of A8 migration on employment and wages has been neutral. In short, there is little evidence that Eastern Europeans have increased unemployment among Britons or that they have depressed their wages. The claim that A8 migrants are benefit tourists is simply nonsense. The Treasury’s figures show that their fiscal impact has been clearly positive, as one would expect of a young working population. Just 1.7% of A8 migrants are on Jobseeker’s Allowance (half the rate of native Britons), and a smaller proportion receive disability, pension and child benefits than British people.

This is not to deny that immigration can have negative effects in particular sectors or communities. The aggregate data mask the fact that as with most aspects of politics, there are winners and losers. And there are certainly those who perceive themselves to have lost out as a result of recent European immigration. The inflow of young, educated people into sectors where they compete with low-skilled Britons, often in areas without much migration experience, has undoubtedly been the source of tension and resentment. And the belief that immigration has contributed towards pressure on housing and some public services, particularly schools, has some foundation, albeit one that could be undercut if more houses and schools were being built.

The impacts are, of course, complex, and a proper discussion goes well beyond the scope of this article. What is not in doubt is that since 2004 the UK has seen a very sizeable increase in European migration, which in its complexity and qualitative differences from previous migrations has brought about profound social changes.

But social change does not, of course, automatically beget political change. Nor is social change automatically perceived in negative terms. The missing link here is political entrepreneurs, and in Nigel Farage UKIP have a leader who is nothing if not entrepreneurial. Farage has recognised the electoral limitations of anti-EU arguments based on relatively abstract notions of sovereignty, and since becoming leader for the second time in 2010 he has increasingly focused his party’s campaigning on immigration. The triple whammy of the post-2004 migration, the 2008 financial crisis and recession, and the Coalition’s austerity programme has been a fertile soil for this change of strategy. The shift has been in both style and substance: more populist, more anti-immigrant. The 2014 poster campaign made clear the balance of priorities. Of the four original posters, two explicitly focused on European immigration: in one, a Kitchener-like finger points out at the viewer with the caption ’26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?’ In the other, an unemployed builder begs on the street with the caption, ‘EU policy at work: British workers are hit hard by unlimited cheap labour’. Thus a fringe anti-EU party founded by an LSE Professor has been transformed into an anti-immigrant party led by a straight-talking everyman with a pint in one hand and cigarette in the other.

As Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin (2014) have argued, and the pattern of UKIP success in the European elections confirms, UKIP no longer relies exclusively on the support of disgruntled Europhobic Conservatives. Yes, they still take votes from ‘Tories in exile’ and many of UKIP’s activists are former Tories, but the recent growth comes from traditional Labour voters. The ‘left behind’ voters who have been attracted to UKIP are mostly white, working-class, older men. These are people who have not benefitted from Britain’s embrace of global markets, who have suffered most under austerity, and who feel cut off from the London political class. The attraction of UKIP among the ‘left behind’ helps to explain not only the recent European result but also UKIP’s second placing in a series of by-elections in safe Labour seats – Barnsley in 2011, Rotherham in 2012, and South Shields in 2013. It equally explains why UKIP did not do well in London, where the young, educated and ethnic minority population spurn them.

The rise of UKIP is an instance of a much wider phenomenon. As Hans Peter Kriesi et al (2012) argue, globalization is restructuring political conflict across Western Europe. A new social and political cleavage has emerged between the winners and losers of globalization, and populist far right parties are mobilizing the losers. This cleavage has class dimensions but it is not reducible to them. Hence the ability of UKIP to draw support from core Tory and Labour voters. It is by appealing to the members of working men’s clubs as much as golf clubs that UKIP have made significant gains.

The mainstream parties’ efforts to contain UKIP to date have been ineffective at best and may have actually contributed towards its popularity. Farage has presented each attack as further proof of an out of touch elite rounding on the voice of the people. Realising that dismissing him was backfiring, both the Conservatives and Labour have moderated their language. The party that Cameron once dimissed as a bunch of ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ now earn the ‘respect’ of George Osborne and recognition by Ed Miliband.

What else can the centre parties do? Can the rise of UKIP be halted? There are no easy answers. Opposition towards immigration and the EU is deep-seated among substantial parts of the electorate, and this section of opinion has now been mobilised. Most of the British press (mostly owned by ‘bloody foreigners’) inclines to sensationalism and outright scare-mongering on immigration (not least in the coverage of the lifting of transitional controls on Bulgarian and Romanians earlier this year). There are good reasons to see the UKIP phenomenon as one more piece of evidence in the secular decline of support for mainstream parties. Nevertheless, the two parties from whom UKIP is drawing most of its votes have choices to make. The Conservatives have have already set out their stall. With the promise of an in/out referendum preceded by a renegotiation, including items on free movement, Cameron has sought to protect his right flank. As Boris Johnson and Teresa May are the most likely leadership contenders in the event of Cameron’s demise, it is hard to see the Conservatives doing anything other than tacking further to the right on immigration and Europe.

Which leaves Labour. Ed Miliband should not over-react. The European result was significant, but there remain very substantial barriers to UKIP gaining seats in Parliament next year. It’s worth remembering that only a third of the population voted in the European election and less than a third of them voted for UKIP. At the same time, ignoring UKIP in the hope they will implode or quietly recede in a fug of beer and cigarette smoke is surely no longer an option. At present Miliband is straddling a line between acknowledging the legitimacy of the concerns of UKIP voters while denying that UKIP has the answers to their concerns. He is caught between the Blue Labourites who want a more robust line on immigration and the more liberally inclined wing of the party, including Tony Blair who this week emerged to defend his government’s record on immigration and urge Miliband not to adopt an anti-immigration platform.

Blair is right: Labour should not move any further to the right on immigration. Labour cannot hope to outdo UKIP on this issue. Rather than accepting UKIP’s framing of EU immigration and adopting policies that give credence to anti-immigration myths, they should contest them. Benefits are a good example. Miliband has committed to tightening benefits for EU migrants. Yet all the evidence shows that EU migrants contribute far more than they take out of the UK tax base. Promising to tighten access to benefits implies that the allegation of benefit tourism is well founded and it will not have any significant impact on the number of EU migrants coming to the UK, for the simple reason that the vast majority come here to work and do not draw benefits.

Labour should try to change the narrative on free movement by observing that it cuts both ways. There are 1.4 million Britons (many of whom have the right to vote next year) enjoying their free movement rights across the EU. Britain has the fourth largest population living in other member states. These people have benefitted from the right to live and work across the EU, yet the free movement debate has become myopically focused on immigration.

Talking up the benefits of free movement will not win back the ‘left behind’, however. Labour needs to address the interests of those who have struggled under globalization and been battered by Coalition austerity. It needs, in other words, to advance a political programme that addresses the disadvantage, insecurity and growing inequality that affects large parts of the population and which underlies their opposition to immigration. A progressive agenda might yet win back enough Labour voters and leave UKIP with an electorally insignificant rump of Europhobes and old-fashioned racists.



Ford, Robert and Goodwin, Matthew (2014) Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, London: Routledge.

Kriesi, Hans Peter, et al (2012) Political Conflict in Western Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

James Hampshire is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sussex. He is Deputy Editor of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. In 2012-13 he was Special Adviser to the UK House of Lords EU Select Committee’s inquiry into the EU’s Global Approach to Migration and Mobility.