UKIP: The Latest Brand of British Populism

It was said that UKIP caused a “political earthquake” with their results in the European elections, but just as quickly as their stock has grown in recent times, so too it will decline, thus returning them to the political wilderness.

UKIP appears to have all the hallmarks of a populist movement. Note that populist, and popular are two different things, though undoubtedly there must be some sort of fan base for a movement of any sort.

In times of crisis, whether they be real or imaginary, people turn to new faces for solutions to old problems. Fed up with the status-quo, and disenchanted with the mainstream, the public turns to fresh movements that preach different ideas, and do not have the baggage of other political organisations.

This is the climate in which UKIP’s popularity has escalated. Helped along by right wing media stories and sensationalism in the tabloids, a very real crisis – the economic one – has been conjoined to a fictional one – immigration.

It is from these crises that UKIP has been able to harness support, but it also because of these crises that they are gaining the level of support that they do. Without the existence of this climate, UKIP’s rise would be next to non-existent.

With that being the case, we should not be overly concerned about the levels of support UKIP are receiving, as once the majority of people start feeling as if we are over the worst of it, they will abandon the party, and return to more familiar organisations. Just as quickly as the UKIP phenomenon rose, it will subside.

This is inevitable of all populist movements, and it is due to a number of reasons.

A hallmark of populist movements, whether they are successful or not, is that they shape the political dialogue and landscape. There are tremendous issues within the UK currently, issues which should not be relegated to a place of minor significance, and yet because of the UKIP movement, they have been.

Quite obviously UKIP’s main focus is on immigration. A topic which has always served right-wing populist movements well. It invokes fear in the population and sets clear boundaries with regards to which side of the fence you sit on.

UKIP’s ceaseless focus on immigration has meant that the other parties have to turn their focus to this issue. If they chose not to they would find themselves easy targets of ridicule from UKIP and it’s supporters, and they would be accused of ignoring the issue, and ignoring the people.

So despite the fact that the NHS is being auctioned off; despite the fact that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening considerably; despite the fact benefits and welfare are being cut; and despite the fact that homelessness, foodbank users, and children in poverty have all increased dramatically in the last 12 months; the focus of debate is on immigration.

As Paul Taggart makes clear in his book Populism, there is no comprehensive definition of a populist movement. Searching for a one-size-fits-all will inevitably end in failure. However, he does believe that populism has character traits, certain themes and ideas which inhabit the large majority of populist movements.

In the case of UKIP these would be their reactionary style to crisis, the contradictions inherent in their movement, and their focus on a heartland of people.

I mentioned earlier that populist movements inevitably decline, and this is partly because of the contradictions that exist within each movement. From their very birth populist movements are doomed to form exactly what they set out to oppose, and so as time progresses they become more and more like those they are against, and lose more and more support.

A key feature of populist movements is the attitude they take towards politics. We see it in the demeanour and character of Nigel Farage. He appears to be a man of the people, smoking, drinking pints and completely removed from the politicians of the other, long standing parties. His whole up-sell is that he, and his party, are different.

Not only is this policy doomed to fail because he will have to become like the other parties in order to achieve any level of sustained success, but it is also doomed because in the case of Farage, it is an outright lie. Though he sells himself as different, the reality is that he is cut from very much the same cloth. His father was a stockbroker in London and Farage himself held numerous positions in banking, he has various friends within the media and is far more financially comfortable than he would have you or I believe.

I do not believe the claim that those who voted UKIP did so as a protest vote, I believe this line was reeled out to downplay any successes that UKIP had. Relegating UKIP to a second class, or minor, party is a dangerous card to deal because it plays nicely into the hands of Farage and his entourage. Adding further support to their wrongful claim that they are not like the other parties.

Despite the European elections and despite the greatest hopes, dreams and aspirations of the UKIP party and its leading members, I feel this may be as good as it gets for the right-wing populist movement. It is my hope that UKIP will not achieve much in British politics, but their latest forays into politics has served as a timely reminder to us all that in fertile ground, dangerous movements can take shape and thrive.

Below I have included some links for further reading on the Populist-UKIP phenomenon. 

This blog post on Left Foot Forward highlights the effect that even a failed right-wing populist movement has on the political landscape.
As ever New Statesman provide a fantastic analysis of their chosen topic. As early as March 2013 they were warning the public of the potential of UKIP and its right-wing populist agenda, calling populism “a signal of stress in mainstream democracy.”

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