Saturday, 24 May 2014

Over Cooked Kippers

The real story of Thursdays elections is the extent to which 24 hour news, as entertainment, now represents a threat to democracy. In a world in which news presenters have become entertainers, and the presentation of the news has become more important than its content, where the need to be continually saying something, no matter how many times its been repeated, now matter how banal, but always to have to make it sound as though its new and dramatic, its no wonder that the rather poor performance of UKIP has to be blown up to be made out to be in some way a political earthquake. It is the political equivalent of the attempt during Winter to make a fall of snow into a news item; to make more than an inch of snow into a calamity. It is the equivalent of the presentation of everything as being the worst, best, longest, since …. even if …. was only last year!

UKIP, or more precisely Nigel Farage, is largely a media created phenomenon. That's not to say they are based on nothing. And, its important for Labour, in particular, to understand what they are based on. There is probably around 25-30% of the British population that suffers from a fairly ingrained racism. You only have to talk to ordinary people to hear it quite readily. Its not the hard racism of organisations like the BNP, or their predecessors. Its a racism born of British chauvinism and cultural backwardness. Its witnessed among much of the same group in other forms of backwardness in respect to sexism and homophobia, for example. And, its not restricted to those with right-wing views.

All of us will have come across the trade union militants, and workers who hold otherwise left-wing views for whom this is the case. In the past, the Militant Tendency were renowned for pandering to it, refusing to push support for various issues where it was felt it might undermine their support amongst such workers. The same approach, of failing to challenge reactionary views, for fear of alienating potential supporters, arose both with the Militant and with the International Socialists, over Ireland, in the 1970's. A classic manifestation of the phenomena was, in 1968, when some of the most militant workers in the country, the London Dockers, marched in support of Enoch Powell, who had been sacked, after giving his “Rivers of Blood” speech. Many of us will even have come across Labour Party members who hold generally left-wing views, but who still hold chauvinistic views on race, gender and sexual orientation.

These views sit more comfortably with the right-wing views of the Tories, they fit neatly with the narrow minded world view of their petit-bourgeois and backward working-class membership and electoral base, but they are by no means confined to their supporters. UKIP was able to appeal to them first because it grew out of them, and its free market policies which it keeps quiet more recently, appeals to them. The reality is, however, that for the majority of working-class voters, and particularly for those who have a more generally left-wing orientation, it is the class affiliation and the greater concern over the bread and butter economic issues that determines their vote for Labour, and not these other concerns. What further complicates matters is that the message that left-wing socialists have given to workers on this issue has been confused and murky too. In Germany too, in the 1930's, many workers who had supported, and even been members of the Communist Party switched straight across to the the Nazis, and for a similar reason, that the Stalinists had tried to appeal to the same nationalistic sentiments that the Nazis based themselves on.

Organisations like the Communist Party, and the SWP are not racist, and yet some of the messages they send out are both nationalistic and racist. The Communist Party, like all Stalinist parties has always been, to use Trotsky's definition, “National Socialist”. That is it has based its programme on the idea of a National Road to Socialism, which is an extension of Stalin's idea of “Socialism In One Country”. The manifestation of that was in the Communist Party's advocacy of the Alternative Economic Strategy, which was a left-nationalist strategy based on a popular front with British capital, around the idea of import controls to protect inefficient British companies, and investment by the British state, in those companies, out of workers taxes, in return for the trade union bureaucracy getting its feet under the boardroom table, so as better to ensure the exploitation of British workers.

Both the CP and the SWP/IS adopted a similarly nationalistic stance in the 1975 referendum on the EEC, arguing for withdrawal, thereby presenting British capital as in some way a better alternative for British workers than European capital, the British state as in some way less a capitalist state than an European state. The CP has also always shied away from the idea of opposing immigration controls, again thereby placing the responsibility for the problems of British capital on foreign workers. Both adopt a Popular Frontist strategy when it comes to opposing fascism, and both are happy, within that context, to utilise nationalistic ideology and imagery, for example conjuring up the image of British Imperialism against Nazism in WWII, for that end.

Its no wonder then, particularly given the abysmally low level of political culture in Britain, that many workers can associate these kinds of nationalistic and even racist stances as being in some way radical and anti-establishment. A more recent example is the wheeling out again of the thoroughly reactionary NO2EU.

Its from this ideological and cultural swamp that reactionary forces, such as the BNP and UKIP, suck up their support. It was always likely to be the case, therefore, that having drained the Tory swamp with its focus on the EU, UKIP's further progress would see it begin to drain the Labour swamp. In fact, many of us will be aware that a number of existing UKIP councillors elected over the last 10 years, are themselves former Labour mavericks, again often from a supposed left-wing position. UKIP have openly said they are following the Paddy Ashdown strategy of trying to build up a base in Local Government. They seem to also be following the Liberal approach of saying Leftish things in Labour areas – or at least hiding as deep as possible all of their right-wing, free market policies – and Right-wing things in Tory areas. They also appear to have no problem proclaiming themselves “Libertarians”, whilst having the most illiberal views on almost everything other than the liberty of capital to move freely and exploit workers unimpeded.

But, the reality is, for all the media hype, in respect of the local government elections, UKIP have not brought about some kind of political earthquake. Their performance is not really an advance from the position that the BNP were in a few years ago. In fact, unlike UKIP, which currently is nowhere near being able to control a single Council, the BNP were close to having a majority in a number of councils like Stoke, close to getting their supporters elected to positions of Mayor and so on. Given that UKIP have basically hoovered up the BNP diaspora, both in terms of its members and its voters, UKIP's performance is, in reality sub par. Despite the media hype, UKIP have done markedly worse this year than they did last year.

The turnout for the local elections was around 35%. Past experience suggests that the majority of people, who are going to vote UKIP, did so in these elections, just as was the case, in the past, with the BNP. That means that their actual support is flattered by these elections. Even if all the people, who voted UKIP, in these elections, did so, in a General Election, which they almost certainly will not, their actual share of the vote would then fall in half, in a General Election, when twice as many people vote. But, the reality is that, in a General Election, many of the Tory voters, who voted UKIP, will return to the Tory fold, keen to keep out Labour. But, for the reasons set out above, an even greater number of traditional Labour voters, who may have voted UKIP, as a protest, will vote Labour, come the General Election.

Its important for Labour to understand this, so as not to be goaded into making concessions to what is, in fact, only a minority view, and a minority view whose strength is very limited, compared to the greater concern, of those workers, in relation to issues such as jobs and wages. Some of those left-nationalists, in the Labour Party and TU movement, who would be keen to accommodate the siren calls, for a more Little Englander stance, over the EU, will be happy to use UKIP's vote, to press for an accommodation, with its reactionary ideas, on those issues. Labour should resist them. The key for Labour, to the next election, is to stand out against UKIP's reactionary nationalist solutions, to argue for internationalist solutions across Europe, based around the need to address the problems of workers in respect of jobs and living standards, across Europe, by attacking the real causes of those problems rooted in capitalism, not by attacking other workers, or blaming foreigners in general. A good start would be for Labour now to be vigorously and openly strengthening its links with other workers parties across Europe, around a programme to address these issues, at a European level, against austerity, for example.

The only way to fight a race to the bottom by individual national economies, that destroys jobs and living standards, is to abolish national economies, not to reinforce them, by re-establishing national borders. The answer to wages being undercut is to establish a high level of Minimum Wage, common across the whole EU, along with common benefits paid across the EU, funded from a central EU state budget, in the first instance, until such time as workers across Europe can establish their own worker owned and controlled social insurance scheme.

The fact is that Labour did not lose large numbers of votes to UKIP, as did the Tories. Labour failed to win seats in those areas, where, in the past, low turnouts would have let in the BNP, who picked up the votes of those backward layers. Labour should not accommodate those elements. It should offer them an alternative to the reactionary solutions groups like the BNP and UKIP offer for their problems. But, in fact, Labour had considerable success in the local elections, that you would never have known about by listening to the 24 hour news media. Labour clearly took votes from the Liberals who are now running towards oblivion, whilst the Tory vote in many areas also collapsed.

Yet, to listen to all of the media hype you would think that Labour had been losing seats left, right and centre. One reporter in the Midlands I heard talk about Labour having a bruising night, simply because they had failed to actually take control of the Council. If winning large numbers of seats, whilst your opponents are losing them represents getting a bruising, god knows how they thought the Tories and Liberals must have suffered. But, of course, that was not the pre-ordained narrative for the news celebrities. That story had to be that UKIP had carried the day, and Labour had done badly. And, if the story could be extended to the idea that Labour had done badly because its led by that geek Miliband all the better, because that reinforces the other meme that the media has pushed, that Labour chose the wrong Miliband, and for failing to choose the media's preferred brother, Labour must now be made to pay.

How much more entertaining is it, after all, to reduce politics, and the rather serious business of choosing the leaders of the country, down to being nothing more than a beauty contest, where the media's chosen targets are one by one thrown out of the House, for not being telegenic enough, being too geeky and so on. If fact, why not skip the actual elections, and simply have the leaders appear in front of Simon Cowell and a panel of other judges, and then have premium rate phone lines to vote for your chosen celebrity politician. We are after all part way to that with the party leaders shows at the last General Election. Maybe Sky News, and the BBC News Channel could find ever more entertaining ways of presenting it, because, after all, the reason most people don't vote is because its too boring. We could have Parliament on Ice, or Celebrity Come Committee Stage.

The real story was that Labour, who already had many more seats than UKIP, and for whom the task of increasing its share, therefore, was harder, not only won many more seats than UKIP, but it won more seats than UKIP held in total! The real story was that the Tory vote collapsed, much of it going to UKIP, and posing a far greater problem for them than for Labour. The real story was the death of the Liberals, and not before time. The real story is that, come the next election, it will, more than ever before, be not a three horse race, let alone a four horse race, but a straightforward fight between Labour and Tories. Come the General Election, both UKIP and the Liberals will not even be also rans.

But, the media could not present that story, because its not entertaining. It does not appear as something new. Farage and UKIP have been feted, by the media, because they provide the news channels with the opportunity of providing entertainment, even if, in doing so, and presenting the winning of 160 seats by UKIP, out of 4000 plus, as a landslide, whilst presenting the 2100 seats, won by Labour, as a disaster, means they essentially misinform the electorate, and undermine the democratic process.

The BBC website, for example, stated,

UKIP's support surges, with Labour also making gains as Tories and Lib Dems lose seats in the English local elections.”

But, the fact was that it was not a matter that “Labour also made gains”. Not only did Labour win nearly 15 times as many seats as UKIP, it actually gained 338 seats compared to the 160 gained by UKIP. Labour gained 6 Councils to control 82 councils overall, whereas UKIP is nowhere near controlling any Council. The BBC wheeled out John Curtice to argue that, despite all this, Labour had only increased its vote by 3-4%, which is not enough to guarantee a majority. But, what he failed to point out was that the Tories had lost around 13% of the vote, and the Liberals had collapsed. A 3-4% swing to Labour might not be enough, if the Tories vote had held up, but it hadn't. The fact it has been drained to UKIP directly benefits Labour, because nowhere is UKIP going to be in contention to win seats, certainly not from Labour. Meanwhile, the Liberals can now only win Parliamentary seats in Tory areas, because their mask has slipped and their true free market face has been revealed.

But, who would know any of this from our news media, because it is only interested in politics as entertainment, in personalities not politics. If we allow our politics to continue to be commoditised in this way, to allow the News channels need to sensationalise and trivialise all news simply in order to justify their existence as providers of entertainment, and thereby to undermine our democracy, we will have only ourselves to blame when what was something of a sham to begin with, is no longer even that.


David Timoney said...


I think you're right about the media's appetite for controversy and "colour", and how this has led to the indulgence of Farage.

It's also clear that the General Election will disproportionately feature both UKIP and the LibDems, The narratives have already been written: "breakthrough (or not)" and "total wipeout".

However, I think there is a genuine sociological interest in UKIP, which I think Paul Mason summed up well here, beyond the simple fascination with political incorrectness.

UKIP are, before they've even won a Parliamentary seat, a party doomed to decline as their supporters die, but this very fact triggers a sort of morbid nostalgia on the part of a (younger, middle-class) media.

It's related to the guilty sentimentalisation of a vanishing working class culture, hence the obsession with the idea that UKIP are attracting Labour support, even though the data suggests they're attracting more ex-LibDems.

Boffy said...


I think there is a sociological interest in UKIP, as I wrote about myself in the above. As I said, its not that they are based on nothing. But, in many ways its only the same sociological interest as the support for the BNP before them, certainly in relation to the working-class (though I suspect that lumpen-proletarian, as far as the vote is concerned,would be a more accurate description.

But, its not any sociological or any other intellectual interest that the mass media has in them.

I've also written a few comments on Paul Mason's blog taking issue with some of the arguments he makes. Firstly, he questions how much of the vote from working class areas is simply a protest. Workers in these areas he says don't lightly go out to vote when its about things that matter like Council Services. But, I've pointed out that firstly, one reason why local election turnouts are so poor is because nobody does see any point in voting in them any more because Councils have been deprived of control over everything local that matters. Many Council buildings are shelled now filled by people working for various quangos rather than the Council.

Secondly, the people who do turn out to vote in such elections are then more frequently those with an axe to grind. Its why the BNP won seats in low turnouts and got smashed when local elections coincided with General Elections.

Thirdly, the idea that the LP is now made up only of middle class professional politicians is a meme circulated by journalists usually based in London, who only come into contact with such people, and middle class revolutionaries with a sectarian outlook who also only ever come into contact with LP politicos rather than ordinary members.

If you look at the ordinary members in the Branches rather than those involved at CLP and above level, then if my area is anything to go by, the Branches are still comprised of ordinary working-class people who live in working-class communities.

The journalists and sectarians never meet them, because these ordinary members are not involved in what these "middle class" elements consider to be political activities. They are involved in the concerns of their neighbours, with the kind of issues that were described to me when I was a member of one of these sectarian organisations as "chicken-shit" issues, i.e. the issues about people who need repairs to their Council house carrying out, who are having problems with anti-social elements, with absentee landlords and so on.