|"There is no future, in England's dreaming . . ."|
The defining English political development of this decade looks like it will be the rise of UKIP.
Whether you view this as a good or bad thing, it is clearly going to have a major effect on how this country is run. The big question for the next election is"Will UKIP hurt the Tories more than the SNP hurt Labour?' The chance of any single party forming a majority after the election next year is receding every day. In this article, I try to understand the factors that have brought this about and come to the conclusion that the real reason for this development is not to be found in the shopping list of grievances that usually get listed by UKIP supporters.
What is on that shopping list?
- Control Immigration
- EU Exit
- 'I want my country back!'
Let's take these one at a time. The recent Clacton by-election looks like a good place to start. This was a resounding win for Douglas Carswell and UKIP so let's assume it contains many typical UKIP supporters. UKIP voters constantly complain about uncontrolled immigration from poorer EU countries. They worry about Bulgarians and Romanians coming to the UK, putting pressure on scarce housing and public services while claiming benefits to support their families back home. So what are the biggest communities of EU immigrants in Clacton? Romanians? Nope. Bulgarians? Nope? How about Poles? Nope. The biggest groups of EU immigrants in Clacton are..........Irish and Germans. Hmmm. So while EU immigration is claimed to be a major issue in Clacton, the objective truth is that Clacton voters have not really been affected by it. OK, where are there decent-sized communities of EU immigrants? The answer is London. How does UKIP do in these areas? Very poorly. This is reflected across the country. There is a negative correlation between support for UKIP and constituencies that have high EU immigration. The people who complain the most about the impact of EU immigration are not the ones who have to deal with it. The people who have direct experience of EU immigration seem to be relaxed about it, presumably because they see the benefits these groups bring.
So my point here is that immigration is a PERCEIVED, rather than actual problem. EU immigration is less than 50% of total UK immigration and the non-EU piece is already tightly controlled. UKIP talk endlessly about an Australian-style points system for immigration but the countries that have these systems (Australia, New Zealand, Canada etc) all have higher levels of immigration than the UK. The number of EU citizens claiming Job Seekers Allowance (from all EU countries) in the UK is 60,000. YouGov recently conducted a survey and asked people to estimate the numbers in various immigration categories. Asked the question above (to which the answer is 60,000) the median answer was 300,000 (5 times the correct answer) and the median answer amongst UKIP supporters was 500,000. So, if immigration is not the problem its critics believe, why do people feel this way? UKIP supporters are often those who have lost out from Globalisation and who are experiencing declining real living standards as wages stagnate, zero-hours contracts proliferate and prices rise. This is not an imagined grievance.
How about Europe? Apart from Immigration, the other major plank of UKIP's platform is immediate exit from the EU. UKIP either maliciously or recklessly exaggerates the perceived costs to the UK of EU membership. They state the cost of membership as the gross amount paid in to the EU and ignore all the benefits; they overstate by ten times the percentage of UK laws made in Brussels and last year claimed millions of Romanians were about to enter the UK (it hasn't happened).
UKIP often talk about following the example of Norway, a country in the European Economic Area but outside the EU. But if Britain left the EU and was just a member of the EEA, would we be better off? The EEA agreement, signed in 1994, extends the EU internal market to the EEA countries. The price they pay for this access? They accept complete freedom of movement of labour from all 30 EEA countries. The Norwegian Government website even includes the following testimonial "The large number of labour immigrants that have arrived in Norway from other EEA countries in recent years illustrates the importance and mutual benefit of a common labour market within the EEA". They go on to say that they recognise the importance of developing the European internal market as an important tool for stimulating new economic growth in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Norway, Lichtenstein and Iceland have also contributed €4bn to EU social programs to "reduce social and economic inequalities in EU countries". They also seek to coordinate social and workers' rights between EU and EEA countries. Doesn't sound at all like Farage's utopia. This is what you have to do if you want access to one of the biggest markets in the world.
One final point on the EU. UKIP spokespeople claim that if Britain were outside the EU, it could trade with faster-growing emerging markets. This is disingenuous. Britain not only trades with these countries today, it trades under a trade treaty negotiated with these countries by one of the largest trading blocs in the world. For Britain to be better off after EU exit you would have to believe that Britain on its own could negotiate better terms with these countries than the much larger EU. Unlikely. The winning entry for the Brexit Prize (a competition to describe how Britain might exit from the EU) estimated that the effect on the UK economy of EU exit would between -6 and +2% of GDP.
Think about that.
The most eloquent proponent of EU exit thinks Britain's economy MIGHT grow by 2% but also might DECLINE by 6%. Will this really transform the lives of the voters in Clacton? I think not.
How about the 'I want my country back' voters? There has always been a conservative group in this country that believes the country was better in some bygone age. They resent progress and want to go back. I know these people believe this to be true but on any measure, Britain is better off, healthier, more open and more accepting than any period in the past. As Macklemore says 'Press Play...Don't press pause'. Progress is about making improvements to move a country forward. There has never been an example of a country improving itself by trying to go back.
Pulling all these themes together, what do we have? A large percentage of the population think that the country's economy is not working for them. They feel they are losing out economically and find the promises made by an anti-establishment party with a charismatic leader that blames 'outsiders' for their situation, an attractive choice. Sadly, we have seen this movie before. Demagogues playing on people's fears and prejudices can be successful and can win a large amount of support...it just rarely ends well. Have we learned nothing?
The UKIP solutions are nonsense. The reasons large numbers of voters feel unhappy and disenchanted with conventional politics are obvious. The post-war economic model, where living standards would rise, and each successive generation would be better off and better educated, is broken. As I said, these are not made up grievances, its just that stopping EU immigration and leaving the EU will not fix this problem. Britain needs immigrants to pay for the increasing pension bill and needs to be more integrated with the Global economy, not less. Immigrants from the 10 newer EU countries (the ones UKIP claim are such a drain drain on resources) contribute over £5bn more in taxes than they consume in services, even after charging them a share of fixed cost like defence. One of the more honest comments from Farage was where he recognised that his policies might make Britain's economy worse off but he would accept that if it become more culturally homogenous. I didn't hear much of that in the Clacton campaign. 'Vote UKIP and we'll make you worse off!.....but don't worry, there will be fewer foreigners!'
UKIP like to say that 'political correctness' means war never talk about immigration but for the last year, we've talked about nothing else. I've just come back from the school trip to China where our hosts were working in school for 12 hours a day, then doing homework until midnight then doing school clinics on the weekend. What can we do in this country to develop high-skill jobs that will provide growing living standards against this competition? How can we dramatically increase the number of new, affordable homes to start solving the housing crisis? Kicking out a relatively small number of immigrants and retreating back to Little England will not cut it. Solving these problems is the big issue facing our country. Parties like UKIP always flourish in times of economic hardship but when living standards start to rise, they melt away like spring snow. There is something disreputable about a party that unfairly demonises a group of outsiders to gain support from people with economic grievances. Politics should be better than this...we should be better than this. Let's get back to coming up with real solutions to the problems we face.
As the great Johnny Rotten said 'There is no future, in England's dreaming......' UKIP is a destructive dead-end that won't solve our problems. Enough is enough.