Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Could it happen here?

The populist right has made gains across Europe. Why not in Britain, asks Anthony Painter

So it did happen. In the year following its staggering first place finish in the 2014 European parliamentary elections, the political classes had argued that the English Independence party’s support – in the mid-20s – was just froth. But in the first post-austerity general election, Nigel Farage’s party managed to hold on to most of its support, polled 20 per cent of the vote and saw the election of 25 MPs.

Sporting a St George’s cross tie, Farage declared in the early hours that his party ‘hadn’t even begun yet’ and already it had ‘turned British politics upside-down’. The prime minister, David Cameron, now faces a tough choice: governing as a minority coalition with the 12 remaining Liberal Democrat MPs, a grand coalition with Labour, or a small majority coalition with the EIP. The UK’s departure from the EU now seems a very real possibility. How did it come to this?

There were three main factors behind the rise of the EIP: it tapped into a latent cultural anxiety and popular exasperation with continuing austerity and rebranded itself and adopted a new organisational approach.

Research had pointed to latent cultural anxiety and hostility over and over again. Matthew Goodwin of the University of Nottingham and Robert Ford of the University of Manchester had showed how the core or loyal support of the EIP’s forerunner, the UK Independence party, resembled that of the British National party in many ways: younger, working class, white, male and often with a Labour heritage. The more fleeting support generally came at the expense of the Tories but only in European elections. It had done well in the previous European elections – a second place finish and 16.5 per cent of the vote in 2009 – only to see the bulk of its support returning to the Conservatives in 2010. It was seen as a single-issue anti-European party.

But then something changed. The collapse of the BNP into a financial, legal and organisational heap helped. But this was a double-edged sword. The BNP was still associated with an aggressive form of politics: racist, Holocaust-denying and provocative of violence. Its supporters were older and more northern compared with the English Defence League’s – a violent street militia resembling the National Front of old – but both sat in an antagonistic political space. Any association with the supporters of either organisation would be a kiss of death to UKIP looking to appeal to more mainstream voters.

UKIP moved quickly to deal with the threat. Learning from Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, it expelled any members who had any association with violence, Holocaust-denial and racism. It refused entry to former members of the BNP or the EDL where it could. Le Pen had moved to expel a party candidate who had been photographed performing a Nazi salute. If anything, UKIP became more severe and made a public virtue of combating racism and prejudice within its own party – whatever the reality.

Other research hinted at an underlying cultural anxiety. The Searchlight Educational Trust’s Fear and Hope report pointed to 23 per cent of the population who were culturally hostile – latently or actively. Goodwin’s research pointed to a broadly similar number. A complacent ‘it couldn’t happen here’ attitude prevailed in the UK’s political and media elites.

However, comparative research such as the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung’s Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination report demonstrated that the UK’s attitudes to immigration, Muslims, and the EU were in the same territory as countries where the populist right or culturally exclusive left had success: France, Germany and the Netherlands. For example, that report demonstrated that 62 per cent of Britons thought there were too many immigrants in the country compared to 40 per cent of people in France and 46 per cent in the Netherlands. Perhaps it was the political system, perhaps it was luck with the leadership and organisational capabilities of rightist parties, but the UK had avoided the rise of the populist right despite public attitudes, not because of them.

UKIP’s major concern in this regard was that it was still seen as a single-issue party focused on leaving the EU. In a political sense it got lucky: this single issue became more salient and formed a convenient bridgehead to other touchstone issues for the anxious one-fifth. The collapse of European democracy in the face of eurozone woes with technocratic governments put in place to administer terrifyingly severe austerity programmes moved the EU’s image in a more malignant direction. When the economy plunged into recession again in 2012 political elites were no longer simply distant; they were incompetent too.

The UK government was not immune from this. Despite cripplingly tough spending cuts – or even because of them – growth did not return and unemployment, especially youth unemployment, remained scarily high. The deficit remained above eight per cent. While the government was discredited people still did not trust the opposition Labour party. With austerity not working, Labour’s plans to spend more money to kickstart the economy met with deep public scepticism. Both party elites were discredited and so were their colleagues in Europe.

The economic pain was compounded by an apparent breakdown of law and order. Riots became a feature of each summer. This took on an added twist when a rightwing columnist began a ‘ban the burka’ campaign. Whether it was the cultural offence, whether it was persistent long-term unemployment, there is little doubt that the terrifying ‘summer inferno’ of 2013, violent clashes between white supremacists and young Muslim men in London’s East End, left a deep political wound. The death of a policeman and a young mother in the violence were appalling. And this was Farage’s opening. He caught the public mood with a message of a ‘plague on all their houses’ – rioters, ‘un-British cultures’, and political elites. He spent the next few weeks touring TV studios with a demand for a return to British values and a restoration of law and order. UKIP’s poll rating briefly touched 30 per cent.

It then started to fall away and that would have been that if UKIP had not  changed its entire organisational strategy. Farage started to argue not just for UK independence from the EU but for an independent England alongside Scotland. To that end he proposed reinventing UKIP as the ‘popular expression of English patriotism’. The drift of Scotland towards independence or at least ‘devo-max’ made this agenda more politically powerful – both Labour and the Conservatives were like rabbits caught in the headlights as they had no clue about how to deal with this debate other than to try to avoid it. Predictably, this approach failed.

At a special conference, the party changed its name to the English Independence party. It received an endowment of £20m from five wealthy donors to develop its organisation in pursuit of English independence.

By focusing on 50 seats which contained both a high number of disgruntled nationalistic Tories and the sorts of voters who may previously have been attracted to the BNP, it made the most of its organisational firepower. It was a powerful combination: a broader political message, a new focus on Englishness, a bright new brand, serious resource, and a coherent organisational strategy.

And yesterday, the EIP secured 20 per cent of the vote and 25 MPs. Just like Alex Salmond in Scotland, seen as a faintly ridiculous figure a few years ago, who now underestimates Farage and his EIP? His name has been added to the list of Europe’s popular new right that includes Le Pen, Pia Kjærsgaard, and Geert Wilders.

Few voices are saying ‘it couldn’t happen here’ on this post-election morning. Instead, the British political establishment is asking ‘how on earth did we get here?’ More pertinently, the question has become ‘is this the beginning of the end of the UK and its membership of the EU?’ English and British politics will never be the same – a heavy price has been paid for complacency.


Anthony Painter’s article Time for an Optimistic Englishness appears in the current edition of Soundings


Photo: European parliament

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Anthony Painter

is author of 'Barack Obama: Movement for Change'


  • Is this about Blue Labour – British jobs for British workers and all that? just asking….

  • Anthony could you have envisaged writing something like this maybe two years ago or just under?

    I wrote some comments on Total politics linked to a Progress article stating in simple terms where and how this has occurred. The irony odf course was this whole business was preventable as I remember meeting a certain Mp at his local cafe in the hopes he would pass a letter (not an essay and yet it got treated as an essay even when i said it wasn’t an essay by Jack) onto Jack Straw four years or so ago.

    The Pride of the unelite (I refuse to call these people “elite” it’s childish nonsense for the egotistically challenged) as with expenses meant any warnings were ignored with a sense if ignorant entitelement, snobbery and ignorance.

    Nothing has changed in the Labour Party as far as i can tell and this was one of the reasons for me to make sure the Party and I went our separate ways. I want to be in a genuinely progressive party not a regressive joke.

    I digress.

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, you do get the station eventually (one of the few political writers that does) and you do your research well as for me I do not need to prove anything to anyone and will continue to write as I see things and experience them.

    Your summary statement on complacency is too true, its also self-interest preventing people getting that voice and I know elected Labour reps who deliberately isolate themselves from the public to prevent (as they see it) people competing with them for their positions. It’s ridiculous but they are doing it. When i was in the Party it made recruiting new members and involving the community more difficult, until finally i just quit. When you are including cool new people in the Party in terms of volunteering keeping their moral up is essential. You lose these people when they are treated badly, when less able and industrious members are promoted by fixes (as i have highlighted on Progress) and when elected reps see political threats in every shadow to satisfy their paranoia. You are then in a scenario where every time you try and take the party forwards whether its campaigning, finding volunteers to help the MP or volunteers to help the CLP you are undermined.

    The rug is pulled out from under you as the Party continues to harm itself with backwards arcane practices that are weird.

    Its all married up in the context of a blanket attitude throughout the Party that needs to change.

    Until it does then people will seek empowerment from other sources and register discontent with the powerlessness they feel in the ways you have listed and others as well.

    We use these words”democracy”, “empowerment”, “enable”,”fundamental” but people do not really register how IMPORTANT these words really are in practice.

    Delivering these things could make such a huge difference, but understanding and respect for these concepts is utterly essential in addressing so many problems the Party, the Community, the County, the Country, the Countries, Europe faces today.

    The responsibility is Labours but it refuses to do what must be done and become one with community. This is why politics is failing because without that link without communication with people feeling disenfranchised the Parties are a waste of time. And parties like UKIP will simply replace them and this as we know is already happening across the UK and in Europe alongside the political dangers that go with it, the rise of the Right.

    It still comes down to representational democracy and Labour is simply not ready to change and wants to cling onto old agendas and motives and only play lip-service to change, and are locked in their own weird incestuous nepotistic fantasy world……..

    I have a fairly clear idea of where things are going at the moment and I see no need to be attached to or associate with such a dodgy and corrupt body and certainly not assist in any way that helps them gain power of any kind. Sorry fella there it is. Labour is too corrupt and needs to sort itself out because at the moment it’s been rejected as Social democracy has been rejected across Europe for their stupendous failure and Ed Milliband has not even begun to grasp the real problems faced by the Party he “leads” (lol).

    Anyway that’s your problem not mine 🙂

  • A major reason for the failure of the Far-right to make inroads has been our First-past-the -post election system which in spite of the best efforts of Progress was kept by the good sense of the public

  • Yes, that is true. Personally I voted no. But there is a threshold and once you get towards 10% then not even the system would prevent a breakthrough. The scary thing about the scenario above is not that it’s probable but that it’s even possible – that should make us v.concerned.

  • Would this be an English pull out of the EU, I suspect Wales and Scotland would fight like hell to stay in, so would we be having a referendum

  • If they don’t let in racist loons from the BNP, EDP and EDL, and promise us a referendum on Europe and an English parliament, then I say good luck to the English Independence Party (formerly UKIP).

    It would of course be better if the three main parties believed in popular sovereignty, but sadly they don’t – at least not for the denizens of England.

  • Anthony, I did not fight the BNP to then spend the next two years fighting for basic democracy and gown up adult discussion.

    I came here to create good change…and get my way some of the time not all of the time…democracy why do we have to fight for it all over again within the labour Party it’s childiish and pathetic….?

  • The correct spelling is ‘councillor’. You might make more sense if you concentrated on your spelling, punctuation and grammar.

  • Though interesting, I feel this scenario is highly implausible. A strong UKIP showing in the 2015 general election would almost certainly result in a majority Labour government, as it would reduce the Tory vote. Plus you make a false equation between English nationalism and hard-right British nationalism, which underlies your belief that the two could converge with a simple re-brand: reasonable, pro-English-parliament and anti-EU nationalism synergising with the more xenophobic, racist and ‘British’ varieties.

    I just don’t think there’s that much profound convergence between these two strands, and the English on the whole are conservative (small c) and cautious. Any populist making demands for English independence alongside those for a withdrawal from the EU would easily be painted by establishment politicians and the media as an opportunist and potential fascist à la Mosley prepared to damage the ‘national interest’ at a time of crisis in pursuit of personal ambition. People would flock back to the Tories in droves. Plus euroscepticism tends on the whole to be more pro-Union than anti. UKIP is wedded to its self-declared status as the defender of Britain’s independence, sovereignty and national interest; and indeed, its recent switch to supporting an English parliament is designed to preserve the Union (as a federation) rather than risk its break-up through Scottish independence. UKIP isn’t going to risk reversing the recent gains in its support by abandoning unionism.

  • The only way the Cons could be almost sure of winning the next general election
    is by forming an alliance with UKIP, the price could well be making Nigel
    Farage Prime Minister if Cameron does the honourable thing.

  • if they do become a english indepence party, then that will make my mind up. i will not vote for a english indepence party. from a union loving englishman

  • […] Most commentators don’t take Ukip particularly seriously because, although they do well in European elections, where they scoop up the anti-European protest vote, they are irrelevant at Westminster because they have never come close to winning a seat in the House of Commons. But earlier this year the Labour magazine Progress speculated about Farage winning enough seats to hold the balance of power after the 2015 election. […]

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