Listen to this article
Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Routledge RRP£14.99, 336 pages
The strident tone of Nigel Farage’s speech at the UK Independence party’s spring conference last month shocked some political commentators.
Parts of Britain, the Ukip leader said, had been “taken over” by immigrants, making them completely “unrecognisable”. Later, he used a press conference to illustrate this phenomenon. “I got the train the other night,” he told reporters. “It was rush hour, from Charing Cross. It was a stopper going out and we stopped at London Bridge, New Cross, Hither Green. It was not until we got past Grove Park that I could hear English being audibly spoken in the carriage. Does that make me feel slightly awkward? Yes it does.”
The undertone surprised Dan Hodges, the Telegraph columnist and former Labour activist, who had previously argued that Ukip was not “a racist or even an extremist party”. In the light of the conference, he wrote, “it’s clear I was wrong”.
But for Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, two political scientists who have spent the last few years conducting the most detailed study yet into the Ukip phenomenon, Farage’s transformation from jovial EU-baiter to anti-immigration polemicist makes sense.
In Revolt on the Right, Ford and Goodwin seek to dispel several common beliefs about Ukip, which have remained entrenched even as its support has rocketed from 3 per cent at the last election to around 12 per cent now – more than the Liberal Democrats. Having pored over decades’ worth of polling data and conducted interviews with almost everyone at the top of the party (no mean feat, given Ukip’s suspicion of outsiders), the pair show that the recent surge in support has been a long time coming, and is fuelled by the same voters who used to turn out for the far-right British National party.
The authors contest the common view of Ukip supporters as “Tories in exile”. Such a description could still apply to the party’s activist base, which has attracted many defectors from the Conservatives since Ukip’s formation in the early 1990s on an explicitly anti-European Union platform. But Ford and Goodwin show that such people make up a minority of its voters, who better fit the label of the “left behind”. They are predominantly white, working-class, older men, often in northern areas, who may in a previous life have voted Labour but have felt disenfranchised from that party since the days of Tony Blair or before.
This, the book’s main finding, should give the Labour party a jolt. Having enjoyed the spectacle of rightwing splits over Europe during the past two decades, Labour should heed the book’s warning that its future, beyond 2015, may be even more at stake than that of the Tories.
Ford and Goodwin also dismiss the idea that Ukip is necessarily a flash in the pan. Many in the three main parties have drawn solace from the fact that it has surged before at European elections, only to quickly wilt again. The authors describe this Ukip as “like the mythical town of Brigadoon: it emerges from the mist for one day every five years, generates great excitement, but then fades from view again as soon as polling day passes”.
This time, they suggest, things may be different. Having interviewed those responsible for deciding Ukip’s electoral strategy, Ford and Goodwin show how the party is emulating the Liberal Democrat approach of building local bastions of support and making a concerted effort to win Westminster seats in those areas.
The polling data also show that the party’s target “market” of potential voters – to use a phrase currently in vogue among political theorists – is as large as 30 per cent, bigger even than the Lib Dems believe their “market” to be. These are the people, according to the book, who share a combination of three key motivations: dislike of the EU, concerns about immigration and a populist reaction against the mainstream political parties.
Nor do the authors believe that other parties, and especially the Conservatives, can make any dent in Ukip support by tweaking their policies on immigration or the EU. According to Ford and Goodwin, Ukip’s support comes from people who look around them and find what they see “unrecognisable”, to use Farage’s terminology. They don’t just want curbs on new arrivals from Bulgaria and Romania; they want those who have already settled to leave.
Revolt on the Right describes a rump of voters who feel disenfranchised by the increasing gap between them and the educated and prosperous middle classes, who have benefited from increasingly liberalised and globalised economies. They are, to quote Labour peer Lord Glasman, not so much the “squeezed middle” as the “squeezed bottom”.
The book is rich in analytical data and contains the occasional anecdotal gem – for example, the moment in 2008 when several party officials stormed out of a high-level meeting when their pleas for a controversial pact with the BNP were rejected.
But political strategists seeking concrete lessons on how to tackle the Ukip threat will be disappointed. In fact, the message for the main three parties is pessimistic. Any policy to win over Ukip supporters would have to be radical, the authors warn – so radical, in fact, that it would alienate voters in the centre ground on which elections are won and lost.
Kiran Stacey is an FT political correspondent