Xenophobia, Poverty and the Lies That Link Them: Dissecting the UKIP Support Base

A viewer watches UKIP leader Nigel Farage on an election TV debate on Apr 4, 2015 in London, UK.A viewer watches UKIP leader Nigel Farage on a televised election debate on April 4, 2015, in London, UK. (Photo: 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com)

Looking to Thursday’s general election in the United Kingdom, last month The Daily Telegraph mapped the inverse correlation between regional support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and numbers of resident immigrants. It turns out that where there are lower immigrant populations, there is more support for a political party that is existentially predicated on fear of immigration. This inverse correlation ought not to surprise us: Racism relies on ignorance, i.e., on not knowing.

Those who have never, or rarely, lived alongside people born outside of the UK are apt to be those who are most opposed to that possibility. Given that many of the rest of us, who either are immigrants, the children of immigrants, or the friends and neighbors of immigrants, know from experience that such views are hateful and indefensible, it stands to reason that to maintain such a stance, one must be short of information or in possession of bad information. Both of these are true in this case. UKIP supporters, for the most part, come from homogeneous white-British regions, and, like the rest of us, are subject to biased, incomplete information.

What is surprising is the consistent failure of politicians and the mainstream media to attempt to dig any deeper into the reasons behind UKIP’s success, and the right ways to respond to that. This map, devised by poverty.org.uk, makes for a more interesting comparison. It shows the distribution of the poorest households across the UK. Compare this with the original map: You’ll see at a glance that the correlation of poverty with UKIP support is striking. (Unsurprisingly, distance from London is also a feature that many of these regions share.) So not only are UKIP supporters unlikely to have had much direct experience of immigrants, they are also likely to belong to some of the UK’s poorest communities. A recent YouGov survey showed that UKIP voters are less likely, on average, to be higher earners than Conservative or Labour supporters.

UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, is a clownish caricature. He belongs to the same school of disingenuous character construction as George W. Bush and Boris Johnson, all of whom have garnered public support through a deceptive boorishness designed to break with the wooden, over-polished fronts of their fellow politicians, and appeal to our love of the underdog. Farage trades on his clumsy offensiveness as a way of appearing more approachable and sincere than the standard Westminster politician. Of course, his personal story (public schoolboy turned city trader turned politician) is a run-of-the-mill tale of an ambitious, wealthy white man done good. He is enormously privileged, but his public image, like his political front, is spun to fool the disenfranchised into a sense of identification.

Among those of us who don’t identify, a lot of time and energy is spent in mocking UKIP supporters for their ignorance. Meanwhile, year on year, their numbers grow, and if poverty inculcates a disposition for supporting UKIP, we can expect a surge in the party’s popularity as the numbers of people living in absolute poverty increases, which seems to be where the continued austerity measures of the major parties are likely to lead us.

A schoolteacher’s corrections of a UKIP flyer went viral last month, inviting us to have a good laugh at the stupid party and the stupid people who sympathize with them. It’s a panicked sort of laugh; a laugh to drown out a very worrying reality.

The flyer represents a party whose ideology trades on hate and vitriol, but look at that sentence structure! It’s not at all clear that spelling and grammar are the things we should be mocking, and it’s not obvious that laughter is the right response anyway. All this mocking of Nigel Farage, his cronies, and their endless gaffes is distracting and counter-productive.

To the extent that UKIP’s support stems from a sense of alienation at Westminister’s priorities, all this laughing can only harden those on the margins. In some moments, and some spaces, it undoubtedly seems meaningful to satirize xenophobia, and it is no doubt cathartic when the alternative is hurt. But trivializing UKIP and its followers means trivializing the issues that their voters want to talk about, and those issues are very far from trivial. They are some of the most pressing political questions of our time, and they deserve our serious attention.

Because despite arguments that UKIP is a viable party based on a shrewd economic strategy, it is an open secret that many of its supporters feel a sense of identification because they have views that are patently racist. A recent incident brought this home rather embarrassingly.

A primary school student, when asked who he is supporting in the coming election, replied that his choice was UKIP, because he wants to “get all the foreigners out the country.” In a line, and with the honesty only a child can muster, he distills the central tenet of UKIP’s support among Britain’s white working classes. Forget the other policies: UKIP’s hook is that its rhetoric gels with people’s pent-up racism. The protestations of UKIP politicians that they are being misrepresented is neither here nor there: Ask a UKIP supporter why she supports them and expect an answer that barely disguises a deeply-held racism.

If this point seems unconvincing, consider that subgroups within the English Defence League have announced their support for UKIP. It takes a racist to spot a racist, and the EDL is certainly not one to extend the hand of friendship to just about anyone. UKIP can describe itself in whatever terms it wishes, but a party’s legitimacy derives from its supporters, and after all, real democracy means delivering on the preferences of those supporters. In other words, if UKIP followers are racist, UKIP is racist. If UKIP was a leading player in a coalition, its voters would be disappointed if their racist preferences were not acted upon. After all, a good deal of a party’s following derives from the ideology that is implied by, say, the way its representatives comport themselves. UKIP’s “gaffes” are very unlikely to be accidental, but if so, they are serendipitous in the extreme: They cleverly garner support without the need to write an explicitly racist manifesto.

It pays to ask why so many people feel this way. Why do people want to “get rid of all the foreigners”? Why does that repeatedly top lists of priorities when elections roll around? The obvious answer is that immigrants have been scapegoated, but for scapegoats to be wanted, there must be an urgent set of problems for which there are no satisfactory answers. Those questions revolve around poverty and unemployment. And the UK, in its eagerness to see economic health of any kind in its core (London), and in its determination that this wealth trickle down from bloated corporations, is struggling and failing to get much-needed resources to its peripheries: the very places where poverty and UKIP support have their concomitant hotspots.

Joblessness, low-quality education and non-existent training opportunities are the order of the day outside of Britain’s major cities. Interestingly, when one considers the positive impact of migrant workers on local communities and the national economy, it is obvious that Britain’s extremities are losing out partly because they have so few immigrants. It is a further irony that, were British people raised to speak another language (instead of being the nation of haughty monoglots that we are), those who now feel compelled to support UKIP would likely have gone abroad in search of employment opportunities. And nobody would blame them: There’s little for them here.

All of the data suggests that immigration strengthens the economy, does not cause unemployment, does not push down wages, does not drain (but rather, bolsters) public services, and is not motivated by seeking welfare payments. Yet working-class, British-born people, like everyone else, are poorer than they were at the last election.

The culprits are not immigrants, they are the politicians who have initiated draconian austerity measures that ideologically target the poorest and most vulnerable, while decimating the public services that make cash-poverty more livable. The current government has meticulously and relentlessly personified the “deficit” until it seems reasonable to prioritize it above attending to the needs of people who are struggling to eat, and in so doing, they have undermined their own legitimacy, which derives solely from their responsibility to care for the people.

Permitting anti-immigrant rhetoric to disguise unrelated economic mismanagement is not only deeply unethical because it is a lie and because it hurts racialized people, it is unethical because it commits an injustice against the UK’s working people, who become the brunt of a bigger political joke as they bang their heads against the wrong brick wall, believing that their lives would be better if only they could just get rid of all the foreigners. Anti-immigrant ideology is a ruse, designed to divide working people on the basis of race and nationality, while class divisions are the real levers of injustice.

And the saddest part of all is that UKIP itself has a very unconvincing set of policies when it comes to tackling poverty, which means their support base is less likely to benefit from voting UKIP than almost any other political party. Their proposed ban on unskilled migration would adversely affect local economies, their cap on benefits would target struggling families, and their failure to adequately protect the NHS and other public services would create additional burdens and vulnerabilities for the UK’s poorest communities.

So have politicians simply given in to the racism of the masses, and decided to adjust their rhetoric and policies to try to win them over? The masses have never had such power over the elite; we can only dream of such exercises of democracy, no matter how bitter their outcomes. Racism is a core component of the ideology of the elite. If they cannot maintain popular support for the fierce control of borders, and maintain the fragmentation of working-class people, they cannot guarantee the protection and obfuscation of their own financial interests.

Immigrants and racialized groups within the UK suffer from the stigma that this rhetoric induces. But much more worrying at this moment in time is the effects of anti-immigrant rhetoric on those who are embarking on the long and dangerous journey to Europe, leaving behind countries torn apart by war and poverty. Well over 1,000 migrants died in the Mediterranean in the last few weeks. Many of these lives could have been saved if European countries could jointly provide adequate search-and-rescue missions. They are prevented from doing so because they have expediently whipped up anti-immigrant discourse to fever pitch, and can no longer summon the popular support for even the most basic gestures of humanity.

Poverty and (legitimate) fear is what drives these migrants to seek uncertain futures in the European countries who are implicated in the degradation of their own home countries’ stability through colonialism, war-mongering, and brutal debt repayment schemes. Poverty and (illegitimate) fear is what drives poor Europeans to make xenophobia the outlet for their misery and humiliation. The UK government’s prioritization of the interests of the wealthy and corporate has necessitated a diversionary and divisive hatred within the working classes, and UKIP has benefited from the racial hatred that increasing poverty has fed.

Why are we not talking about UKIP supporters? Because that would mean talking about class, after which we see that UK politics is cowardly, dishonest, and undemocratic to the core.