From the July-August 2014 issue of News & Letters
It’s been dubbed a “political earthquake” that has struck the heart of the European Parliament. Yet this surprising victory for the right—where Britain’s own United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) made unprecedented electoral gains—signifies not merely disillusionment with mainstream politics, but growing intolerance across Europe.
Defeating both the ruling Coalition of Conservative and Liberal Democratic Parties, UKIP also outpaced the Labour Party (LP) opposition in securing almost 30% of votes for the European Parliament.
Since its founding in 1993, UKIP has been firmly Eurosceptic, viewing membership in the European Union as the cause of a myriad of social ills from illegal immigration to economic instability. Yet UKIP ballot box success is new.
After years of dissatisfaction under Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “New Labour” project, the now ruling Coalition of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives viewed their ascension in 2010 as evidence of the electorate’s rejection of the LP. Yet the LP persists as a political force, despite its indecisive current leader, Ed Miliband, who continues to pose as a moderate in the face of perceived trade union militancy.
The failure to formulate a credible opposition to the Coalition permitted UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, to take advantage of the disillusionment of the electorate and ferment a nationalism opposed not only to the European Union, but foreign influences in general.
UKIP high-flyers were exposed as racist, some throwing homophobia into the mix, in a series of comments marking the party as permeated with intolerance. From the idiotic ravings of the now suspended UKIP councillor David Silvester, who blamed recent flooding on god’s anger at gay marriage, to the bigoted “send the lot back” anti-immigrant ranting of Victoria Ayling, UKIP is far beyond opposition to the EU.
While their electoral manifesto was dismissed as “a list of things that annoy people” by New Statesman writer Alex Andreou, the UKIP spokesman for small businesses, Amjad Bashir, has some clear ideas. Opposing the minimum wage, paid vacations, working time directives and maternity leave, Bashir shows UKIP is no friend to workers and is a threat to the gains made by the British labour movement.
UKIP represents a current of thought amidst British business that resents EU for enshrining a raft of labour-friendly benefits in UK law. The real class force behind the anti-EU crusade is an embittered clique of businessmen and conservative politicians, exploiting racism and fear for their anti-worker agenda.
Yet Britain’s organised working class still tentatively supports the LP, which made gains in local elections and multiple council seats at the expense of the right, only being overtaken by UKIP in elections to the European Parliament.
The soft approach of LP leaders has exacerbated the political confusion so ably taken advantage of by UKIP. Far from opposing Conservative attacks on welfare, Ed Miliband said his party would continue with such austerity policies, albeit it in a less severe form.
What happens next depends on the trade unions. Len McCluskey, head of Unite, the largest union in Britain, announced plans to form a new party if Miliband doesn’t change his policy of acquiescence. If a new political force for trade unionism emerges, it could undercut the far right with arguments of substance, worker militancy and cosmopolitan anti-capitalism. It could address the growth of the European right by organising renewed ties with trade unions across borders, not just to oppose transnational capital, but to answer the rightist onslaught with a systematic defence of labour, immigrants, women and ethnic minorities.
Whatever the case, the far right have again thrown down the gauntlet to the only force now capable and willing to take them on: the organised labour movement. It’s up to us to answer the challenge.