Sunday, 12 October 2014

Have "soulless parties" made way for UKIP?

The Guardian's Owen Jones certainly thinks so.

Writing today, he describes how "two rootless, soulless parties have cleared the way for UKIP."

It's a piece worth reading, and Jones does write well. But his conclusions are simplistic, hampered by his inability to escape from the culture of blaming others for the rise of UKIP. His observations are particualrly dangerous because they contain a grain of truth.

He begins by suggesting that "UKIP talks of breaking the 'political cartel' while peddling policies the entire political elite agree on, quibbling only on scale and detail: tax cuts for the rich, privatisation, slash-and-burn austerity, curtailing workers’ rights." Clearly he hasn't been to Lib Dem conference. Or been listening to the SNP (who, being a majority government, must count as elite). Or even listening to what Labour are saying recently, however confused their messages of late.

Aside from sweeping generalisations, Jones does have some interesting things to say.  He points out that "Britain’s political elite has fuelled more than enough disillusionment for enterprising charlatans to exploit. Yes, there are honourable exceptions, but it has been abundantly clear what the political elite has been becoming for quite some time. Technocratic, rootless, soulless; a professionalised morass of time-servers who see ministerial posts as springboards to nice little earners on corporate boards; manoeuvring constantly not on the basis of political principle but for shameless self-advancement." It's powerful stuff, and he hasn't finished there. He bemoans the rootlessness of the Tories - and their fall from the high point of 3million members in 1950, rooted in a popular conservatism that “embrace[d] all classes and all creeds except atheists and enemies of the British empire” - while also bemoaning how the decline of trade union strength has resulted in Labour membership plummetting.

I am not entirely sure why Jones is so averse to the continuing evolution of political parties. Why should anyone want the Conservative party to be "rooted" to a now defunct philosophy? Why would anyone, even a trade unionist like myself, want a return to the days when the unions were disproportionately powerful? The "rootlessness" argument is not entirely without merit, but it omits to engage with the wider issue of what "being rooted" means in political terms. It should not mean a fondness for the doctrinal, a state of paralysis caused by unwillingness to adapt, or indeed an inability to speak to people from all backgrounds.

Jones then goes off to rewrite history, citing people such as Tony Benn and Barbara Castle as prime examples of what politicians once were before "professionalisation" crept in. I have much admiration for those two individuals, but to suggest they were not career-minded people is well short of the mark. Castle was a formidable figure and made a huge contribution to British politics - but let's also face the facts: she never worked in anything but politics, she was Oxford educated, and had one of the safest seats in the country. Tony Benn's ambitions can speak for themselves.

It is a shame that Jones falls into the misguided socialist thinking on the working class vote. It is the growth of individualism, and the "smothering of the unions" that has led to political parties being seized by career politicians, he states. This has led to "the Tory and Labour parliamentary parties [becoming]so stuffed full of people who can’t even do a rough impression of speaking like a human being...we end up with a Labour leadership unable to offer anything resembling a coherent, inspiring alternative expressed in a language people can relate to."

There are some valid observations, but Owen Jones is as much a careerist as any of those he seeks to criticise. He also fails to recognise that it is the relentless media obsession with UKIP, rather than the failure of Labour, that is chiefly responsible for working-class people turning to UKIP. He doesn't, for example, explain why the Greens or the Scottish Socialist Party are not more natural repositories for the votes of one-time Labour supporters

The fact is that working-class people are not particularly inclined to vote Labour. They are far more socially conservative than the intellectual left has always liked to believe for ideological reasons. In truth, they are far more likely to vote for other parties than are the comfortable middle-classes to vote anything but Tory. Who was it who supported Enoch Powell? Who voted for Thatcher in their hundreds of thousands after the Falklands War and council house sell-off? Farage's refusal to support marriage equality is not accidental, but part of a deliberate plan to cultivate the support of a particular section of society.

There is something of an anti-Westminster theme at the moment, but it is not anti-politics. And the beneficiaries of it are UKIP (mainly ex-Tory, public-school educated) who have no particular love for the British working class, and certainly aren't taking British politics back to a world before the professional politician. Quite the opposite - they are the uber-professionals, disguising their establishment credentials while cynically playing all the populist cards.

People are voting UKIP for various reasons, but it's not because they're longing for a more authentic socialist voice. The unpalatable truth is that neither of the major parties (including the Greens and the SNP) are (rightly) willing to run with an aggressive anti-immigration or anti-multiculturalism message - it's this that clears the way for UKIP, not the professionalisation of politics. This has happened in the past when mainstream parties refuse to play the populist card - even in those golden pre-professional days of the 1930s, Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists had over 50,000 members and was able to terrify the establishment (supported as it was by the Daily Mirror).

Like Jones, I deplore the rise of the professional politician almost as much as I do the rise of UKIP. But blaming the latter on the former is patently wrong: there are more sophisticated and complex reasons why UKIP are able to appeal to large sections of British society.

It is not the lack of roots that turns people towards UKIP (which itself has few roots, except in a view of a historical England that never actually existed other than in the minds of right-wing nostalgics); neither is it the demise of Empire or the decreasing power of the Unions (that would have destroyed Labour if left to their own devices, as Barbara Castle understood only too well). Perhaps if Jones took off his left-wing blinkers, and realised that working-class people are not and never have been intrinsically inclined towards socialism, he might more adequately recognise UKIP's popularity for what it is - the inevitable reaction of the conservatively-minded to a cleverly crafted conservative message. 

Jones is guilty of a sentimental rewriting not only of history but of the current political situation, that is as mawkish and misguided as anything UKIP have produced. UKIP's standing with the public is not due to anyone's failure as much as it is the product of an intelligent and well-executed strategy.

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