What does Ukip have to offer?
Beneath its increasingly well-funded, electorally successful veneer, Ukip is an organisation with no substantial programme and little by way of a propositional politics. That may not be a problem for a party that collects 3.1 per cent of the popular vote in a general election, as Ukip did in 2010, but it is for a party that has just had its first MP elected and is riding at 25 per cent in opinion polls.
In a recent phone-in on LBC radio, a Ukip supporter from Welling in South-East London couldn’t state a single policy advocated by the party instead choosing to repeatedly mention immigration, ‘a fairer Britain’ and more ‘common sense’. Admittedly, many Labour, Tory and Lib Dem supporters would have had similar difficulties. Still, that awkward conversation, shaped by a reasonable set of questions and asked by the presenter, James O’Brien, in a manner most television journalists seem incapable of, was revealing of the way Ukip has focused on genuine grievances such as falling wages and a lack of affordable housing, and resituated them in their usual language of mass migration and EU membership.
It seems probable that a referendum on membership of the European Union, whether it comes in 2017 or later, will be framed by Farage and his ‘people’s army’ as a plebiscite on austerity. Britain is about to enter its sixth year of declining real wages, a situation without precedent. Labour’s institutional aversion to discussions of class and capitalism – it isn’t a ‘squeeze’ in living standards, it’s a nosedive – means that the root causes of those grievances remain beyond the conversation of electoral politics. Ukip has found a way to exploit this. ‘Under the three main parties there has been a downward shift in living standards over the last decade or more,’ Nigel Farage said at Ukip’s annual conference in September. ‘Only by leaving the EU could Britain stop the “race to the bottom” of wages caused by high immigration.’
The next day, Patrick O’Flynn, a former political editor of the Daily Express and now a Ukip MEP, criticised the ‘Starbucks economic model’. O’Flynn, a far more talented propagandist than anyone within Labour’s ranks, is drawing up Ukip’s tax policies ahead of the next general election. He says they will favour low-income earners. A week after Ed Miliband said Labour would increase the minimum wage to £8 an hour by 2020, Ukip said they wanted to take anyone working full-time on the minimum wage – earning £13,500 a year – out of tax altogether. That was a more generous offer than anything proposed by the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg has said that letting the working poor ‘keep more of their own money’ is a liberal measure. If so, he would have to concede that Ukip’s policy is more liberal than the Lib Dems’.
Ukip say they’ll pay for their proposed hike in the tax threshold – and the abolition of inheritance tax, the other policy cornerstone of the conference – by leaving the EU and cutting foreign aid. The sums don’t add up, but it’s still a more concrete proposal than anything the Conservatives have come up with to explain how they would pay for their own offer of increasing the ‘personal allowance’ to £12,500 by 2020.
Some pollsters reckon that Ukip are looking to win around ten seats at the general election, with bolder calculations predicting far more than that. As that election approaches, they will offer more concrete ‘policies’ from their Bond Street headquarters: on grammar schools, on denying access to the UK to people with health conditions, and even on tax avoidance. Their ‘big ideas’ on the EU and immigration, meanwhile, will remain undimmed, as they now deploy them to explain public spending cuts and falling wages as well as declining social capital.
Policies matter but only when they are a response to the grievances and frustrations of the public. Ukip don’t have any that would help, but they are beginning, unlike the major parties, to recognise the problems that have defined Britain over the last decade: declining pay, un- and underemployment, and rampant inflation in the rent and housing market.