Nigel Farage is a former stockbroker and the leader of a party which represents the interests of the white and well-heeled. UKIP in power would abolish inheritance tax, charge people to see a doctor and ban the teaching of climate change from the National Curriculum. UKIP wants to give more money to the top two per cent of the population and take it away from those who happen to get ill – however poor they are. Despite Farage’s matey, fag-and-a-pint image, UKIP represents the smirk on the corpse of cruel, reactionary England.
And yet despite this, the party attracts widespread working class support. The average Kipper is more likely to have finished education at 16 or under than voters of the three main parties and is less likely to be university-educated or have an income over £40,000. In explaining the UKIP phenomenon, the media enjoys waxing lyrical about disillusioned right-wing Tory voters, but far more interesting is the class background of many of the UKIP’s prospective voters: these are conservatives but with very little to be conservative about.
In part this is the result of a clash between the London-based liberal left and the working class on whose behalf the former supposedly speak. Labour leader Ed Miliband is regularly chastised for betrayal by metropolitan types if he breathes so much as a word about immigration or welfare, yet the working class has fewer scruples. A majority of Labour voters believe benefits cuts are essential to make people stand on their own two feet, while economically insecure groups are "dramatically more hostile" to immigration than the middle classes, according to the 2012 British Social Attitudes Survey.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, to find that those with most to lose from a party which harks back to the days of corporal punishment and tripe shops are attracted to UKIP through fear of immigrants and "scroungers". Anxiety is, after all, a fairly effective tool when deployed against the economically marginalised.
But I suspect something else is at work. In recent decades, not only have the two main political parties increasingly converged in terms of policy, but the pool which parliamentary talent is drawn from has become appreciably smaller, especially so for Labour. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, 40 per cent of Labour MPs had done some kind of manual or clerical work before they entered parliament. By 2010, that figure had dropped to just nine per cent. Changes in the labour market undoubtedly account for some of this shift, but the extent to which parliament is rapidly (once again) becoming the talking shop of the upper middle classes is evident in other data too. An astonishing 91 per cent of the 2010 intake of MPs were university graduates and 35 per cent were privately educated. This is a rise on previous elections and, in the case of the latter, compares to just seven per cent of the school-age population as a whole.
To some extent, politics has always been the preserve of the comfortable, but for a time there was a degree of travel in the opposite direction which reflected wider societal efforts to reduce inequality. During the 20th century, the social democratic settlement enabled a reduction in the gap between the highest and lowest earners and, as a consequence, a corresponding increase in social mobility. It also saw an unprecedented number of parliamentarians from modest backgrounds, such as Aneurin Bevan, Ernest Bevin and Edward Heath, to name just a few. However, in the last 30 years the direction of travel has been very much in the opposite direction, with it becoming increasingly certain that a person born to a poor home will die in a poor home. The unprecedented degree to which the playing field has been skewed in favour of the well-off is, unsurprisingly, reflected in politics.
The gradual disappearance of the working class from mainstream political life has created fertile ground for the type of anti-politics espoused by Farage. Recent polling by Lord Ashcroft found that a majority of UKIP voters were motivated, not by fondness for any particular UKIP policy, but by a more visceral feeling that UKIP is "on the side of people like me" and that "UKIP’s heart is in the right place".
Many commentators will attribute this to the mysterious "Farage effect" and the UKIP leader’s uncanny ability to connect with "ordinary voters". It is certainly a demagogic strand of populism which Farage is versed in, but I suspect the so-called Farage effect is at least in part no more than the UKIP leader’s ability to talk and act like a normal human being, rather than a weird automaton who’s been groomed for office since stepping out of short trousers.
I don’t wish to patronise people by claiming that the working classes need to be talked down to (I’m from a single-parent working class family, before I’m told to check my privilege), but even if his policies are bonkers, Nigel Farage comes across well with us "ordinary people" because he gives a very passable impression of being more than a little like us. Despite his less than horny-handed background, Farage behaves like someone who has at least some experience of life outside the upper middle class political and journalistic hivemind. At a time when the vast majority of the political class sound about as detached from reality as a Brezhnev apparatchik (and about as inspiring), being normal goes a long way.
As well as being a moral imperative, if the left could get a few more "normal" – see working class – people into politics, then perhaps it wouldn’t be left to a Little Englander of the reactionary right to shake up the political establishment.
- This article is reproduced with kind permissions from the New Statesman.
This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it.
Want to know more about studying social sciences at The Open University? Visit the Social Sciences faculty site.
Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.