For marginalised UKIP voters, it’s the stories and not the facts that matter, and it could be hurting them.
Across the world, blue collar voters ally themselves with the political right. In the case of UKIP’s new working class electoral coalition, disgruntled voters choose to set aside economic self-interest in favour of the more satisfying moral narrative served up by the Right. For these voters, it’s the stories and not the facts that matter, and it could end up hurting them.
UKIP is currently riding high on a tide of recent electoral successes, sustained for the most part by the indignant working Brit. In Rochester and Strood, UKIP candidate Mark Reckless marched to a convincing victory, despite controversy over his remarks that immigrants might be sent back home under a UKIP government. He was the second Conservative Party defector to trigger a by-election and regain their seat in Parliament after Douglas Carswell, the member for Clacton, returned to the House of Commons under the UKIP banner after a by-election in October 2014. However, UKIP’s recent victories signify much more than a revolution amongst Eurosceptic backbenchers. They are illustrative of a greater sea-change in public mood, as signified by the party’s near miss in the former Labour stronghold of Heywood and Middleton after the death of its member last year.
Demographically, UKIP’s key voters are whiter, poorer and slightly older than the rest of the UK. According to a recent YouGov poll, of those switching from another party to UKIP between 2010 and 2015, 61% are identified as working class. The majority earn less than £20,000 a year and left school at 16 or earlier. They are natural Labour voters, who somewhat counter-intuitively have tended to rely on the Conservatives for tax cuts to make their pay go further, rather than on social solidarity. UKIP fares better with self-identified “right” or “very right” wing voters, but worse with graduates and those under 40. All this may come as no surprise. What is striking however, is these statistics in contrast with the details of UKIP’s policy proposals.
We have already established that UKIP supporters generally earn less than the national average. It seems paradoxical then, that they should endorse a party which has proposed a cut in the rate of tax, from 40% to 35% for those earning £41,865- £55,000 a year. This policy is distinctly not aimed at a squeezed working class, with earnings above £45,000 a year placing the majority of this bracket in the top 11% of incomes nationwide. UKIP voters, who are already feeling the pinch of Conservative austerity policies, would almost certainly lose out from tax cuts. These cuts are likely to compensated for by another UKIP’s policy of a “streamlined welfare system”. It strikes as nonsensical that UKIP supporters should actively vote for cuts to the welfare benefits they often rely on to subsidise their generally small, and often precarious earnings.
Enter Nigel Farage, self-professed man of the people
Perhaps we can illuminate these paradoxes by looking in closer detail at the constituencies in which UKIP succeeds. Clacton has been labelled as ideal territory for the party. A struggling coastal seat, inhabited by plenty of older voters hard-pressed by the times and feeling left behind by Westminster. The Eastern constituencies of Great Grimsby and Thanet are amongst the hardest hit by the deleterious effect of immigration on local wages. In Rochester and Strood, the Tories were said to have missed the mark by concentrating their campaign on the national economic recovery, the effects of which are hardly being felt in these constituencies. A common theme of insecurity emerges. UKIP’s orginal raison-d’être of leaving the EU is irrelevant amongst its newest voters- almost two thirds of them did not mention Europe when surveyed by YouGov about their greatest concerns heading into to the 2015 General Election. Topics like immigration and employment mattered far more to them. Above all, what these worried conservatives demand after five years of rising inequality and job insecurity, is some recognition.
Enter Nigel Farage, self-professed man of the people. We can deduce from an examination of UKIP’s actual policy statements that the facts are not on its side. It seems pointedly obvious that the party’s blue collar support base would be left worse off by tax cuts and slashes to spending. However, what the party does wield is a powerful narrative of outrage and moralism. Political scientists explaining voting behaviour tend to roll out the old analogy of voters “shopping” in a supermarket of candidates, discerning the value of policies relative to their own interests. In the case of UKIP, this metaphor simply does not fit. Support for the party is better likened to a system of religious belief. Its policy behaves like a creed with a deep moral call that runs deeper than the petty affairs of the political elite. This party, in the eyes of its voters, is on a mission for the hard working British taxpayer.
UKIP’s astonishing ability to rewrite the facts and reframe the argument is well exemplified in its call to arms against the political establishment. Farage’s anti-establishment bemoaning of the Westminster “old boys club” has struck a deep resonance with voters. This comes despite the party leader’s own affiliations with the City, having been a financial trader himself. His links to the financial sector made themselves apparent when, in his capacity as MEP last year, Farage rallied against a European Robin Hood Tax on transactions. Yet criticism of the mainstream parties as elitist and detached remains a central plank of UKIP’s campaign platform. Through the arts of moralising and spin, Farage has been able to portray himself as an authentic, experienced candidate, distinguishing himself from “career politicians” such as Miliband, whom he claims is ill-acquainted with the real world.
The party’s complicated moral reasoning is able to defy logic in this case
Another example of UKIP’s formidable mastery of the moral narrative comes in its contradictory attitude towards social provision. There exists a puzzling dichotomy in the party’s take on welfare benefits and the NHS. Though both are forms of social protection, on which a great number of UKIP’s voters depend, welfare benefits are regarded as a drain on tax payer’s reserves, and on the morals of the country. By contrast, UKIP defends the NHS as a British institution, an engrained national value. The party’s complicated moral reasoning is able to defy logic in this case.
When people fear the collapse of a society, they clamour for order and national greatness; something to cut through the hysteria. For those living in situations of precarity and disruption, UKIP represents a strong moral binding force. It claims to defend and uphold “British values”, attractive to those living in increasingly diverse communities in which a sense of difference pervades. The trouble is that when the rhetorical force of the party is swept away, we are left with policies that are likely to divide. Programmes which cause immigrants to feel unwelcome, and make it clear to minorities that their cultures are not valued here are likely to incite fear and disruption. Plans which extend tax breaks for the affluent and cuts to the services which the poor rely on will widen the gulf between rich and poor. UKIP is attractive to its supporters because sells a dream of unity and order, but its policies in reality would produce the opposite effect.