Episode Ten: Ukip’s Five Year Plan

John Lanchester

It is morally wrong that five independent fee-paying schools should send more students to Oxbridge than the worst performing two thousand secondary schools combined.


The increasing ebb and flow of people across our planet is one of the greatest issues of our time.


On the major issues of the day – immigration, the economy, our health service and living standards – the establishment parties have repeatedly and knowingly raised the expectation of the public, only to let us down, time and time again.

Yes, broadly speaking. The IMF’s statement yesterday, to the effect that the fiscal projections in Osborne’s most recent budget are unlikely to be met, shows that they’re still at it.

The Government continues to signal its intention to widen engagement in international conflict while, at the same time, implementing a crippling round of further military spending cuts.


To help protect the enduring legacy of the motor industry and our classic and historic vehicles, Ukip will exempt vehicles over 25 years old from vehicle excise duty.

That gives it away – all this is from Ukip’s manifesto. If the whole manifesto were like that last proposal, all lounge-bar populism and talk of political correctness gone mad, Ukip would be a less disruptive force in British politics. The party’s policy proposals are often silly. Their willingness to identify problems, though, can be hard to disagree with. The Ukip manifesto is strong on raising issues which the mainstream parties would rather gloss over. As James Meek’s piece on Grimsby makes clear, there is more to the upsurge in Ukip’s appeal than just a protest vote.

I had always assumed that Nigel Farage is an idiot. I still basically think that, in that his solutions to Britain’s problems are what in Italy used to be called (and maybe still is) fantapolitica – fantasy politics. He is an astute idiot, though, and where it once seemed that Ukip had only populist arm-waving, it now looks as if it’s more complicated than that: Ukip has populist arm-waving, and also a medium-term plan.

That plan is known as the 2020 strategy. As summed up by Chris Bruni-Lowe, the party’s election strategist, its crucial component is to win a seat for Farage in Thanet South, and then to ‘come second in more than 100 northern constituencies’. Then, in the 2020 general election, Ukip can present itself as the only viable opposition party across whole swathes of the deindustrialised North. As Meek made clear in describing Grimbsy, the party’s appeal there is not trivial. The typical Ukip voter is older, whiter, poorer and less educated than the UK norm. It’s a demographic well represented in areas which currently feel they have no choice except to vote Labour, not least because the Conservative party ‘brand’ is still toxic.

This is the real sting in the idea ‘Vote Nigel, Get Ed’. If enough people do vote Nigel, we will indeed get Ed. Then, come 2020, a Labour-led government which has spent five years implementing austerity policies – which it will have to do, to fulfill its manifesto pledge to cut the deficit every year – will have to contest its northern heartland with a non-Tory, anti-austerity alternative. Add to that the possibility of further trouble in the Eurozone, with Ukip howling for a referendum and blaming Europe for all Britain’s troubles, and it’s not hard to imagine Labour having future problems with its traditional Northern vote to rival the ones it currently has with its traditional Scottish vote.

So although Farage is an idiot, he also isn’t. This is a viable plan, though it’s also one which could fail at the very first stage: the Thanet South ballot. Farage has said he will quit as Ukip leader if he doesn’t win the contest there, a three-way marginal between the Tories, Labour and Ukip. (Just to spice things up, the Tory candidate, Craig Mackinlay, is a former deputy leader of Ukip.) When Meek visited the constituency last autumn, Ukip were already throwing resources at the seat. But the latest constituency poll by Lord Aschroft has the Tories with a tiny lead over Ukip. ‘It is frankly just not credible for me to continue to lead the party without a Westminster seat,’ Farage has said, and also ‘if I fail to win Thanet South, it is curtains for me. I will have to step down.’ Politicians are good at saying things which when closely parsed allow them to change their minds, but there doesn’t seem to be much wiggle-room for Farage. If he loses, Ukip’s whole plan goes down the plughole. A big, big part of the 2020 general election is taking place right now, in Thanet South.


  • 16 April 2015 at 2:11pm
    streetsj says:
    One quibble - there's no need to believe the IMF, they get it wrong as much as any body.

  • 16 April 2015 at 2:26pm
    Jim McCue says:
    So if Farage is correct in identifying so many of problems, and we agree that the classic car promise is pure populism, why exactly is he a fantastist? With 10,000 migrants arriving in Italy in the first week of the season, people in London living in rabbit hutches, schools unable to cope with demand for places, and resistance and resentment across the country at the scale of housebuilding being called for, why is he wrong to think we would be better to leave this little local bankrupt cartel and trade with the rich parts of the world instead? And that this might make a fundamental difference to solving many of the other problems?

  • 16 April 2015 at 3:07pm
    coudreuse says:
    Two seats: Sheffield Hallam and Thanet South. These seem to be our equivalent of Ohio, inasmuch as they hold the key to the balance of power.

  • 16 April 2015 at 3:23pm
    jasweidner says:
    Can someone explain to me, a non-Briton, how the idea of reducing the deficit became so politically powerful that Labour has committed themselves to that instead of a more traditionally Keynesian program?

    • 17 April 2015 at 9:27am
      kadinsky says: @ jasweidner
      It is the thing that will baffle future historians of this period more than anything else: why did Labour not challenge the giant Tory lie that the deficit was caused by Blair and Brown's social spending? It is only Labour's acceptance of this audaciously bogus frame that has enabled the Tories and Lib Dems to force Britain's poorest and most vulnerable to atone for the sins of its richest.

    • 17 April 2015 at 9:33am
      stockwelljonny says: @ jasweidner

    • 17 April 2015 at 12:55pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ jasweidner
      Well, unfortunately, during the Blair-Brown years the Labour Party ceased to be a social-democratic party and embraced the idea that neo-liberalism is best. They did this in order no longer to be seen as the party of profligate 'tax and spend', but as fiscally responsible in the (at least perceived) manner of the Tories. This also led to the (arguably) financially disastrous 'Private Finance Initiative' which has mortgaged the future of large parts of the public sector with the sole purpose of keeping government spending on schools, hospitals, etc. off the books. PFI was Gordon Brown's equivalent of the 'Special Purpose Entities' so beloved of the likes of Enron - a way of hiding the real state of the finances.

      Despite all this jiggery-pokery, the Tories still managed to spin the deficit caused by the government taking over banks debt in 2008/9 to avoid their complete collapse as the result of Labour's profligate spending, which is obviously quite untrue (whatever you think of PFI, it did not cause the deficit - the banks did).

      Ever since, Labour have been terrified of anything which might allow the Tories to point the finger of fiscal irresponsibility at them again and so have locked themselves into a position where the raising of taxes to balance the books and invest is taboo and increasing government borrowing equally so. And so they have denied themselves any alternative to being watered-down Tories. To be boldly socialist (or even social-democratic), they perceive, will make them automatically unelectable again.

      Maybe they are right, who knows? But, as the public response to, say, freezing energy bills shows, maybe the electorate might respond to some good old-fashioned Labour policies in place of the pale Tory imitation now on offer. But the more Labour become Tory-lite, the less likely they are to attract votes (see Scotland, for a glaring example).

    • 17 April 2015 at 1:45pm
      dickdotcom says: @ Alan Benfield
      There's actually no mystery why Labour allowed the "giant Tory lie" to be promulgated - it's pretty well explained here: Basically Labour were so exhausted after losing the election and so involved in choosing a new leader that they allowed George Osborne's lie to travel halfway around the world while they were still putting their boots on. They then chose to try and change the narrative - cost of living crisis - rather than allow Osborne to set the terms of the debate. I sense that Osborne's lie is unravelling all by itself now.

      I wonder too if we'll see some more explicit Keynsianism if Labour form a government. It is in the manifesto, it's just quite well-disguised to blunt Tory attacks.

    • 17 April 2015 at 10:58pm
      Jim McCue says: @ jasweidner
      A Keynesian programme of investment in things that will one day produce revenue or at least support economic development (trains, drains, education) is entirely different from giving money to support people "according to need". The second is NOT Keynesian, because it is not helping the economy to function. It may be laudable or even morally imperative, but it is a different thing, charity. And unfortunately human misery and human need are endless, so to attempt to give until they are overcome is impossible. And the economic effect is the opposite of Keynesian: it is to depress the economy by making people think they are entitled to everything they need, and that everyone who needs anything is entitled to it if only they present themselves in the queue. Funnily enough, the gets longer, not shorter. The crucial Keynesian investment needed in Britain now is in education. Only if the next generation is a lot cleverer than this will it have anything to offer that the world is prepared to pay decent wages for.

    • 17 April 2015 at 11:12pm
      Jim McCue says: @ Jim McCue
      (See Harry Stopes' post "The Mandela Complex' for a perfect example of the worst possible incentive created by well-intentioned charity: free houses available to those who can show that they are poor enough.)

    • 20 April 2015 at 7:41am
      Alan Benfield says: @ Jim McCue
      It's always instructive how many people who cite Keynes only take as much from him as they want to 'prove' their point (when they have actually read Keynes at all, that is).

      Actually, Jim, Keynes was all about getting money into the economy to make it function and, in extremis, was quite happy about paying people to dig holes so that other people could fill them in, as long as that produced a net increase in money in circulation (i.e. by paying these people a wage which they would then put into the real economy). The point here is that it is always better in times of stagnation or deflation to increase the circulation of money and the best way of doing this is to pay people to do things, as the majority of wage-earners do not save very much - they mostly need to spend their wage on living. This is not to say that it is not better to invest in things which are useful, but it is essential that at least a proportion of this investment goes in the form of wages - one can spend an enormous amount 'investing' in things, but if the so-called investment is in things which do not increase money in circulation (or even takes money out of effective circulation, like property investments), they won't do much good.

      So, while in the long term Keynes would prefer to see long-term useful investment which increases the aggregate amount of wages and thus money circulating in the economy, he would be extremely relaxed about short-term support for the poor - on the grounds that it gets money into the economy in time of deflation.

      What he would have been very concerned about, however, is the present situation in the housing sector, where rentiers have taken over the private rented sector. This has led to two results which directly lead to stagnation: (1) that the rentier class extracts money from circulation by over-charging for a good which is in short supply in an unregulated market and (2) because the artificially high rents are unaffordable for many (also because wages are artificially low for many), the state wastes money which could be used for productive investment (or reducing the deficit, for example, if that's your thing) in providing housing benefit - effectively a direct subsidy to the rentier. Was this what Margaret Thatcher intended when she forced the sell-off of council houses? Do the Tories understand what a forced sale of housing association stock will lead to? Ultimately, once again, the poor will be thrust into more overpriced substandard housing, the level of housing benefit will rise and people like you will be mumbling about how 'charity' doesn't work. plus ça change...

      Have to take extreme exception to your closing remark: "Only if the next generation is a lot cleverer than this will it have anything to offer that the world is prepared to pay decent wages for." Hmmm, as the present generation is arguably (on paper, at least) better qualified than ever before, this seems a little disingenuous: many a barista has a degree these days. This sounds suspiciously like blaming the un- and underemployed for not being well enough qualified, when there are simply not enough jobs (and, thanks to 'flexible' working practices, employers can exploit those desperate enough by offering jobs which pay starvation wages, if anything at all, all in the name of 'efficiency' and 'market value').

      Who do you work for, the CBI?

      P.S. One major plank of Keynes' platform, which most people don't understand, usually because they haven't actually read Keynes, is that governments should save (i.e. run budget surpluses) in the good years in order to be able to invest in the lean years - anti-cyclic investment, the basis of Keynesian economic stimulus. Unfortunately, governments of all stripes tend to give away the shop in the good times (for populist or purely ideological reasons) and then have nothing to invest in the bad times. Hence we all have embrace 'austerity'.

    • 20 April 2015 at 9:40am
      Alan Benfield says: @ Jim McCue
      Not really a bad idea at all: the SA government is investing in providing housing for those who earn too little to afford it: this means that they are effectively paying their rent - rather like the Tories with housing benefit, but with the added advantage that the rent does not go straight into the pocket of a rentier (who does not spend it, but either banks it or uses it to invest in more property, thus withdrawing money from the real economy), but directly benefits the poor and allows them to spend what money they have in the real economy.

      Keynes would approve.

    • 20 April 2015 at 12:54pm
      robert higgo says: @ Jim McCue
      Jim, I think we need to factor in the gross inequality of income and the legacy of racism when we draw lessons from the behaviour of poor people in South Africa

    • 21 April 2015 at 4:44pm
      John Cowan says: @ Alan Benfield
      "What he would have been very concerned about, however, is the present situation in the housing sector, where rentiers have taken over the private rented sector."

      Indeed, rentiers have taken over the privately owned sector too. It's just that we call them banks.

  • 17 April 2015 at 12:16pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Doesn't anybody actually attack these crude claims and expose the xenophobic core of his arguments? It isn't the 'ebb and flow' that is the issue. A hundred years ago, Europe was a net exporter of people, while the young countries benefited enormously from their arrival. The issue is the disastrous inequalities of the 'free market system' which produces the conditions in which thousands drown in the Mediterranean, millions work for pennies for our economic advantage and the big concerns get their claws into every commodity that we need to survive. What makes it worse is that the economists claim that inequality is the great motivator that gets the young poor to strive for a better jobs ..( you know the rest of that one.) The UK used to have a large number of poor people who voted labour and hoped that they would be voting for some improvements. Community housing, national health service, better schools, more security for the older. Now there are a few thousand ex-labour voters who seem to think that immigration is the root cause of their misery. Well good luck with that one.

    • 17 April 2015 at 1:09pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Quite so, Geoff. The problem is that this type of politics is the exact analogue of the cultural wars so familiar from the US: right-wingers get people riled up over peripheral, but inflammatory, issues (religion, abortion, with UKIP, immigration) in order to distract attention from the rest of their agenda, which, invariably (apart from perhaps a few headline-grabbing but, for the majority, valueless policies like reducing inheritance tax), will be detrimental to the poor.

      In this way, as in the US, the poor are often tricked into voting for parties whose policies are mostly explicitly not in their interest, if only they examined the fine print.

  • 17 April 2015 at 3:58pm
    streetsj says:
    On the whole debt issue, in addition to the PFIs and dwarfing them are the unfunded government pension liabilities which are massive and growing. And then there is the whole issue of personal debt. Our society is in hock up to its eyebrows. When interest rates go up, the pain will be palpable.

    • 17 April 2015 at 6:24pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ streetsj
      True. This issue, however, needs a lot more analysis than we can manage in a blog: it leads to some very scary places...

      On the other hand, one thing we can determine quite quickly is this: the huge increase in personal debt (and not just in the UK) has not been driven by the profligacy of the borrower, in the main, but by the need of the borrower to borrow just to make ends meet. Hence the explosion in payday lenders in the UK.

      Once again, the flat lining of pay against the general increase in inequality has led to more debt as people attempt to kick the can down the road, hoping that they can sometime pay off the credit cards...

      More in hope than expectation, I suspect.

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