Rochester and Strood and the Shape of Immigration Rhetoric

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Thursday’s by-election in Rochester and Strood resulted in a widely expected victory for UKIP’s Mark Reckless. The by-election was triggered by the defection of Reckless from the Conservative Party at the end of September. Becoming UKIP’s second elected MP following fellow Tory defector Douglas Carswell’s success in Clacton last month, Reckless and UKIP took 42.1% of the vote (16,867 votes). The Conservatives were relegated to second place, with 34.8% (13,947) of the vote; while Labour came in third, with 16.8% (6,713). The Green Party finished fourth, with 4.2% (1,692); leaving the Liberal Democrats with less than 1% of the vote, and only 349 voters. The turnout for the by-election was 50.6%.

For the three main parties – or, as Douglas Carswell appropriately put it on Thursday night’s Question Time, two-and-a-half – these figures represent significant losses upon their showings in the constituency in 2010. At the 2010 general election, in Rochester and Strood the Conservatives emerged victorious with 49.2% of the vote; Labour were second with 28.5%; and the Liberal Democrats third with 16.3%. The turnout was 64.9%.

So the Conservative vote on Thursday represented a decline of 14.4% upon 2010; Labour’s vote was down by 11.7%; and the Liberal Democrats suffered most of all, their share of the vote having fallen by 15.5%, and all but erased. The constituency was only created in 2010, and UKIP did not challenge the seat at the general election – although the similarly themed English Democrats did, and managed 4.5% of the vote. The Green Party were fifth, with 1.5%.

In the aftermath of their victory, UKIP have been quick to assert that they regarded Rochester and Strood as only their 271st most winnable seat. According to Reckless, ‘If UKIP can win here, we can win across the country’. But as William Hague has rightly countered, the ‘271st most winnable’ calculation does not account for the scenario of an incumbent MP defecting and standing in the same seat for another party. Reckless carried with him the votes and the position he won as a Conservative in 2010; and he has a long history in the politics of the area, standing for the Conservatives when it was part of the Medway constituency in both 2001 and 2005 – when he received 39.2% and 41.7% of the vote respectively, in 2005 losing out to Labour’s Bob Marshall-Andrews by just 213 votes. It is unlikely an alternative UKIP candidate would have fared nearly as well; and analysts and opinion polls are already doubtful that a majority of less than 3,000 will prove enough to enable Reckless and UKIP to hold the seat come 2015.

Reckless’s victory speech faultily but craftily depicted UKIP as the heirs to a radical tradition extending back through the Levellers, Chartists, and Suffragettes. While the extension of suffrage which was the goal of those groups has no modern correlate, and their principles of political and economic equality sit uneasily with some of UKIP’s ideological roots, Reckless’s thrust is to stress – despite the privileged backgrounds of its leading members – UKIP as outsiders when it comes to modern party politics, and as the new party of the traditional working class. It is an appeal to a broad historical sensibility more than to any points of detail – and in this respect, the vagaries of UKIP’s policy offering are working in their favour, but perhaps only for a limited term.

UKIP’s 2010 manifesto was dismissed by Nigel Farage at the beginning of 2014: calling the manifesto ‘drivel’, he admitted to not having read the whole of the lengthy document. Beyond withdrawal from the European Union, its key policy was a flat-rate income tax of 31%. It proposed a freeze on permanent immigration into the UK; stated that benefits should only be afforded to those who had lived in the UK for at least five years; and offered a host of minor policies relating to everything from the abolition of statutory maternity pay, to standards of dress, and the repainting of trains in traditional colours.

With the 2010 policy offering ridiculed and rejected, after the party conference held in Doncaster in September UKIP outlined a new set of policy proposals. I discussed these in some detail in a previous post in the aftermath to the Clacton by-election. The proposed flat rate of income tax has gone, as have the florid incidentals relating to dress and decoration. Some of the rhetoric on immigration has softened. Yet UKIP policy still caters first and foremost to a narrow right-wing agenda: income tax rates would be lowered for the wealthiest; inheritance tax would be abolished; military spending would increase but there would be significant cuts in the areas of aid, green energy, culture, and transportation; grammar schools would be reintroduced; and working time regulations would be amended. In crucial areas, UKIP remain vague: aside from offering little in the way of environmental or cultural policy, they admit they have not costed their tax plans, and are unclear on measures to curb tax avoidance.

Yet just a few months on from their party conference, rather than adding detail where it is required and consolidating their offering, UKIP policy continually vacillates. Increasingly well organised and using sophisticated voter data analysis, UKIP are targeting different constituencies with different – and sometimes entirely opposed – messages on issues including taxation and the future of the NHS. With antipathy towards the EU the grand theme motivating the party’s existence, they can work the vote at a local level without revealing much of what should lie between: a series of convictions which comprise the party’s beliefs and propositions beyond leaving the EU and drastically reducing immigration.

On the topic of immigration, UKIP have retained from their 2010 manifesto the proposal that migrants only become eligible for benefits after five years in work. This is accompanied by the argument that all visitors to the UK, and migrants up to five years in work, should have to purchase private health insurance; and by the proposed reintroduction of the primary purpose rule for accommodating spouses and children. Even on what should be the party’s core ground, there is uncertainty. On Tuesday in Rochester and Strood, a couple of days before the by-election, Mark Reckless suggested that according to UKIP policy, European migrants already living and working in the UK would be allowed to stay only for a ‘transitional period’ – with the implication being that they would then have to secure work permits, or else face deportation. This seems to draw upon another remnant from the 2010 manifesto, which presented the idea that EU citizens who arrived in the UK after January 2004 should be treated as non-EU immigrants.

On Wednesday, Nigel Farage dismissed out of hand the idea that UKIP would deport existing EU migrants. He stated firmly that UKIP does not believe in retrospective legislation. But on Saturday morning – with celebrations over the victory in Rochester and Strood on the wane – Mark Reckless accused Farage of surreptitiously changing his mind in the middle of the week, in response to the disquiet his earlier comments had caused. Reckless remarked, ‘The policy changed on Wednesday and I’m a bit sore about how I came out of that. Until Nigel changed it on Wednesday, the policy of the party was everyone can stay for the transitional period, no doubt about that, that there would then be a permanent arrangement which would be part of the EU negotiation’.

Debating Reckless’s comments on Question Time, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown asked Douglas Carswell why UKIP couldn’t simply get together in a room and work through the niceties of their policy offering. As the party increasingly forces its way into the spotlight, and as the UK heads towards next year’s general election, the electorate may finally come to ask of UKIP a greater degree of political nuance, transparency, and consistency. This will be difficult to harmonise with a continued appeal to a working class vote.

To the degree that UKIP are proving successful, and are successfully sanding away their rougher edges, it is because they remain intensely critical of politics in the UK and in Europe, while confining their appraisal of culture to Britain. More than the other parties, they conjure a sense of an idyllic past and shared British values; and they are managing to achieve this without excessively demeaning the cultures of other peoples, regions, and nations. Fearful of being called xenophobic or racist, the Conservatives and Labour frame their arguments on limiting immigration solely in economic terms: referring to the strains immigration can place upon the welfare state, wages, and the NHS. That immigration is a fundamental problem – a ‘real concern’ shared by ‘the people of this country’ – is something which none of the main parties counteract: utterly ignoring a wider context defined by a financial crisis caused by big banking; a housing market which is insufficient and grossly overpriced; and growing inequality, as real wages have fallen to an extent not seen since the middle of the 1800s.

Evoking warm feelings of British pride, UKIP are keen to harken back to Britain’s colonial past and the Commonwealth. Instead of broaching Britain’s cultural bonds within Europe – which extend back thousands of years, and have been fundamental to the constructions of English language and democracy – UKIP would anachronistically foster a notion of the Commonwealth as a source of easy diversity. In his victory speech, Reckless took this line, stating that, ‘People in Medway cherish Britain’s links to distant, fast-growing continents. We want to lift our eyes and horizons beyond Europe. We are linked by commerce and kinship, by language and law, by habit and history, to the wider English-speaking world.’

Cultural concerns lead neatly into the furor caused by Emily Thornberry’s tweet. On the afternoon of the by-election, she posted on Twitter a photograph – which she captioned simply as ‘Image from #Rochester’ – of a house in the constituency with three English flags hanging from its guttering, and a white van parked in the driveway. After a flurry of criticism, and an initial condemnation from Labour leader Ed Miliband, by late evening she had resigned from her position as shadow attorney general.

The photograph was immediately construed as Thornberry ‘sneering’ at a stereotypical image of England’s white working class. Yet as the photo was retweeted and castigated – by commentators including fellow Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who said, ‘I think she was being derogatory and dismissive of the people. We all know what she was trying to imply […] It’s like the Labour party has been hijacked by the north London liberal elite’ – her resignation, presumably encouraged after a second discussion with Miliband, seemed only to consolidate the most damaging interpretation of the intention behind the tweet, because the image itself was not unambiguous. Thornberry did not provide any further context for the photograph, nor her rationale for posting it on Twitter. As the upset began to build, she initially argued that the photograph was purely documentary: taken because she was ‘amazed’ at the number of flags covering the house. Analyses of her posting history showed that she regularly documents the places she visits by photograph; but also revealed an earlier image taken of a house adorned with flags.

If the notion that the image was apolitical documentary is refused, still there are other interpretations beyond regarding it as a sneer. While there may be a fine line between sustaining and subverting a stereotype, the photograph could be read as an implicit criticism of the Rochester and Strood vote: holding up a stereotypical image of crude nationalism as a mirror, reflecting on the willingness of the Rochester electorate to vote for a man who just hours earlier had been advocating the deportation of legal citizens. If not a criticism, still perhaps the use of the image could be conceived as an attempt to provoke some of these debates.

We can also ask whether the rush to condemn Thornberry – as sneering at what has been defined ‘the working class’, ‘working people’, or broader still, ‘the people’ – is itself demeaning, in so far as it would cast a large number of people as a narrowly definable group, who share the same feelings and thought processes when it comes to loose issues of identity. It elides any stratification or any differences of opinion within ‘the working class’, who according to this reductive representation, are culturally content provided they can bear flags without being harangued or even questioned. The dull support for bearing the flag of St George from politicians responding to the affair is undoubtedly not shared by all within ‘the working class’; and it is worth questioning to what extent the flag does simply affirm a sense of pride in one’s country, versus promoting a coarse brand of nationalism – especially through some of its political and sporting associations. All of this lays aside questions of aesthetics, which UKIP have been happy to invoke elsewhere – where it concerns uniforms and trains, for instance, or the impact of wind farms upon the English countryside.

If Thornberry’s tweet may have been disrespectful, still the extent of the controversy – in the face of Reckless’s remarks on deportation, and Farage’s comments after Clacton on people with HIV – and the virulence of her critics – David Cameron, on the back of his insulting showing earlier in the week during Prime Minister’s Questions, called Thornberry ‘completely appalling’, arguing that she was ‘sneering at people who work hard, are patriotic and love their country’; while Farage asserted that Labour ‘hate the concept of Englishness’ – show only that the race to the bottom in British politics is not only complete, but entrenched. Rather than offering an alternative ideology or shifting the focus of political debate, Labour too continue to move to the right on immigration. This was confirmed at the beginning of last week, when the party announced a proposal to make EU migrants wait two years before claiming out-of-work benefits. Though significantly milder than the five year block on all benefits proposed by UKIP, this is still a marked increase on the current waiting period of three months. Ken Clarke dismissed Labour’s proposal on Question Time, depicting it as too long and not comparable with the treatment given to Britons elsewhere.

Amid the shouting, it is important that this fixation on immigration and the EU does not amount – as Guardian journalist Owen Jones recently argued – to a UKIPisation of British politics. Within the British political system, it is difficult for any outsider party to make such rapid headway without some sort of head start. Instead, the direction which British politics has taken over the last few years has been decidedly impelled by the Conservative Party.

Eager to turn the locus of public anger from austerity measures, cuts to services, and the banking sector, the Conservatives have consistently encouraged anti-EU sentiment, and anti-immigration sentiment as its objective correlative. In this way they also distinguish themselves from Labour, and move the political spectrum to the right: hoping to gain come next year’s general election, presuming that despite the very fears they have stoked, right-minded voters will ultimately hedge towards the political mainstream. Many senior Tories presume too that if a referendum on Europe does eventually take place, voters will opt to remain in the EU – even if it requires a late campaign of scaremongering regarding the economic risks of an exit, as occurred just prior to the independence referendum in Scotland.

This view appears to hold ground: a poll conducted last month by Ipsos MORI suggests that support for the EU among the British public is at its highest level since 1991, with 56% desiring to stay within the union, in spite of their concerns over the transfer of powers and immigration. In this respect, the Conservatives seem to be winning the game; though they are undoubtedly being stretched beyond comfort by the rise of UKIP. Cameron vowed to ‘throw everything’ at the by-election in Rochester and Strood: but his party lost out despite big spending, big names, and a xenophobic campaign which declared that, thanks to ‘uncontrolled immigration’, people ‘don’t feel safe walking down the high street of our town’. Meanwhile, lacking in ideas and capable leadership, Labour allow themselves to be led by the nose. With the Liberal Democrats cowed by virtue of the coalition, the Green Party are increasingly the only party of choice for anyone who holds to left-wing liberal values.

For all of UKIP’s Commonwealth rhetoric, and as much as the one-sided immigration ‘debate’ centres upon the EU, the facts show that as a group, EU migrants benefit the UK economy more than any other: however the figures are defined, the net fiscal impact on the UK of EEA migrants – those from the EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway – is substantially more positive than that brought about by UK citizens and non-EEA migrants. In fact, despite their cost, and being cast as ‘controllable’ in contrast to the ‘uncontrollable’ immigration which is a product of EU freedom of movement, it is non-EEA migrants who comprise two thirds of the UK immigrant population. EEA migrants are typically of working age, and come to the UK with employment and possessing high levels of education. Of all EEA migrants to the UK, the majority come from the so-called ‘EU 15’, which includes Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Fewer come from the ‘EU 8’, of Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, plus the ‘EU 2’, of Bulgaria and Romania. This is not to decry immigration from any part of the world, but to show the convoluted and deceptive presentation of the subject which dominates within UK politics.