As the UK Independence Party gains its first elected Member of Parliament – with Douglas Carswell, whose defection from the Conservative Party triggered the by-election, taking just under 60% of the vote yesterday in Clacton, leaving the Conservatives with less than 25% of voters in the constituency while Labour managed just over 11% – there is an urgent need for a mainstream challenge to UKIP which tackles the party on an ideological level.
Instead, Labour continue to poke fun at recent Tory defections, and underplay the potential ramifications of UKIP’s rise for their own party – speaking only abstractly about what UKIP are and what they represent, in a manner which scaremongers rather than providing a sustained analysis of the deeply flawed and thoroughly unpleasant nature of UKIP policy. The Conservatives meanwhile have resorted to simply asserting that a vote for Nigel Farage’s party is, in essence – thanks to the traditional dominance of the UK’s two main parties, and the first-past-the-post voting system – a vote for Ed Miliband and Labour. The Conservatives presume that, come next year’s general election, disenchanted right-wing voters will fall in line, reluctantly accepting that they must, first and foremost, keep Labour from power.
In a political arena increasingly devoid of ideas, where major parties distinguish themselves not through policy or even by virtue of character, but by aggravating one another and seizing vaguely yet heavy-handedly on populist concerns, centre-right parties throughout Europe are complicit in provoking then pandering to populations easily riled by the issue of immigration. Mainstream parties of the centre-right believe they can differentiate themselves from their centre-left counterparts via strong anti-immigration rhetoric, even where they have little intention of acting upon the supposed logic of what they say. But the public come to see the disparity between emboldened words and enfeebled action, and suitably riled, they turn further to the right.
More surprising than Carswell’s considerable victory in Clacton yesterday is how close UKIP came to taking the other seat on offer, at the by-election in Heywood and Middleton. Labour retained the seat – the by-election was called after the death of MP Jim Dobbin last month – and in fact their vote in the Greater Manchester constituency increased as a percentage, by 0.8% upon the figure from the 2010 general election. However, they saw their margin of victory cut from 12.9% to 2.2%: Labour won through with 11,633 of the vote, with UKIP narrowly losing out with 11,016 voters. The latest nationwide polling reports put UKIP at around 15%; with Labour just ahead of the Conservatives somewhere in the low 30s (though the gap between the two parties appears to have narrowed following their respective party conferences); the Liberal Democrats as low as 7%; and the Green Party at 5%.
UKIP have successfully built themselves as the one party in the United Kingdom firmly opposed to immigration and membership of the European Union. Indeed, anti-immigration sentiment now has its correlate antagonism towards the EU. UKIP – but also to a large extent the Conservatives – have managed to resolve the European Union into a body which enforces immigration, and imposes too a series of largely undefined but apparently undesirable laws upon the British people (one of the few enunciated impositions, and perhaps the most prominent, is the directive from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that there can be no blanket UK ban on the right of prisoners to vote – a directive which the ECtHR has not tried to enforce since making the ruling back in 2005, while the Court has also ruled against compensating any of the prisoners affected). The broad economic, social and cultural, and legal benefits of membership; the fact and the degree to which it promotes cooperation on a continent beset by hundreds of years of war; everything else about the EU is marginalised.
One of the mainstays of immigration rhetoric – a line churned out contentedly by parties across the political spectrum who desire to appear firm on immigration – holds that the UK should only allow into the country the best and brightest that other nations have to offer. The demand is that, where immigration does occur, it is only to fill gaps in the labour market for highly-skilled positions. This seems brazenly immoral: how can it be right – or conducive to a world economy, and a steady flow rather than a panicked rush of immigrants in the long term – to take from smaller or developing nations only their most educated people?
But putting aside some of the moral and longer term aspects of the debate, UKIP’s pledge to remove the UK from the EU – and in turn from the European Economic Area and its Free Movement Directive – would seem to immediately damage the country economically. Immigrants from the European Economic Area are the only group – in contrast to UK citizens and non-EEA immigrants – to routinely provide a net contribution to UK finances: a contribution put at £25 billion since 2000.
The UK Independence Party has sought in recent months to expand the scope of its policy offering; and party members have increasingly invoked the Commonwealth, harking to the past for a potential source of palatable immigrants, and as the party seeks to appeal to a growing number of voters. Still, the perception is significantly of a single-issue party, with all extraneous policy subservient to the main focus on withdrawing from the EU and limiting immigration. When it comes to the economy, the party inhabits a ground to the right of the political equation, but remains vague on matters of taxation. Nevertheless, it is worth viewing the extent of UKIP policy – as set out on the party’s website, following the party conference in Doncaster a couple of weeks ago – to see what dwells beyond the headlines.
Beyond reviewing EU legislation as a precursor to their proposed withdrawal from the EU, and beyond withdrawing also from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, on the economy UKIP pledges to increase the personal allowance – the income you are entitled to receive before paying income tax – from £10,500 to £13,500 by 2020. This betters the promise made by both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to increase the personal allowance to £12,500. However, unlike the Liberal Democrats, UKIP do not propose to increase the threshold at which people begin paying national insurance contributions – a change which would focus on helping low-paid workers. The party also says nothing about raising the minimum wage. Labour has pledged to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour over the course of the next parliament, should they be elected in 2015.
UKIP cater to the wealthy by proposing to abolish inheritance tax. The party would introduce a 35p rate of income tax for those earning between £42,285 and £55,000 a year, with the 40p rate then starting from £55,000. The 45p top rate of tax, paid on earnings over £150,000, would be discarded. UKIP is unclear on measures to curb tax avoidance – its proposed Treasury Commission to design a tax for big business is ill-defined – and the party admits it has not yet fully costed its tax policies.
The foreign aid budget would be cut by £9 billion by UKIP. The Department of Energy and Climate Change would be abolished; the Climate Change Act of 2008 overturned; green taxes would be scrapped; and there would be no more subsidies for green energy. UKIP are, however, committed to fracking. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport would also be abolished. Indeed, ‘culture’ for UKIP appears to amount to a vacant identification with ‘British values’; in points of detail, UKIP refer only to a reduction in the BBC licence fee and the right to smoke in pubs and clubs. Elsewhere the HS2 project, meant to improve the rail network between London and the north, would be cancelled.
But where cuts would be made to aid, green energy, culture, and transportation – and UKIP also argue big savings would result from exiting the EU – the military’s funding would be significantly increased. This is one of several absurd UKIP policies centring on the military and military personnel. Those who have served in the armed forces for at least 12 years would be guaranteed a job in the police force, prison service, or border force: an horrific prospect surely for prisoners and visitors to the country, and also for many civilians. Ex-service men and women would be awarded priority with regard to social housing and mental health care.
On education, UKIP propose the reintroduction of grammar schools, with institutions allowed to determine at what age they select pupils according to aptitude. Apprenticeship qualifications would be enhanced and offered in place of non-core GCSEs, and the Labour-led target of getting 50% of young people through university would be dismissed. UKIP suggest reducing tuition fees for some students in maths and science, but only on the condition that these students live, work, and pay tax in the UK for at least five years upon completing their degree. Students from EU countries would have to pay international student rates for attending UK universities.
All visitors to the UK, and migrants until they have paid national insurance contributions for a period of five years, would be required to purchase private health insurance. Likewise, migrants would only become eligible for benefits after five years in work. UKIP wishes to amend European working time regulations, which provide workers with rights to breaks and holidays, and the right to work no more than 48 hours per week. Time-limited work permits would be afforded only to those competent in English, with job offers in hand and with accommodation agreed prior to arrival. Nigel Farage has suggested that people who are HIV-positive would not be welcome even with these criteria met. And the party would reinstate the primary purpose rule for bringing spouses and children to the country: a rule which was scrapped by Labour on coming to power after the general election in 1997, described as onerous and arbitrarily keeping families apart.
Finally, UKIP would reduce Barnett formula spending, which currently allows Scotland to maintain a higher level of public expenditure than England. UKIP argues that it would give devolved assemblies further tax powers by way of compensation. The party would also enact ‘English votes for English laws’. The contempt UKIP has for Scotland – and in turn for Wales and Northern Ireland, while appearing to offer equally little economically and politically to vast swathes across northern England, who would desire investment and some degree of regional devolution- was in evidence during the BBC’s coverage of the Scottish referendum results.
David Coburn, UKIP member and Scottish MEP – after claiming that UKIP are the least racist of all parties because they are happy to embrace a minority of immigrants from ‘the colonies’ – spoke vehemently to criticise the treatment of the English at the hands of the Scots. He stressed the intimidation of voters by those in support of Scottish independence; promoted ‘English votes for English laws’; and stated that people in Scotland had been lured by SNP promises of ‘a haggis in every pot’.