The news of UKIP’s first elected MP, the probably election of it’s second in the coming weeks, and a nail bitingly close result in a Labour stronghold have once again turned all eyes on Nigel Farage, the insurgent party’s mercurial leader and bane of Westminster.
But what’s behind UKIP’s new found popularity in both a Tory seat in the South East and a Labour seat in the North West? A large proportion will be protest votes, even more so now the Lib Dems can no longer claim to be free from the taint of the Establishment. Yet eurosceptism, the totemic UKIP issue, is barely in the top ten of most voters concerns, and UKIP’s manifesto is practically unknown outside its own members. The answer is immigration.
But concerns about immigration in and of themselves are not normally enough to make people opt for outsider parties, as what’s left of the British National Party will painfully attest to. The immigration debate has come to epitomise the detachment of our political elite, and the gap forged between the three main parties and the rest of the public has been gleefully filled by UKIP.
As with so many other issues, a consensus has been reached by the main three parties on immigration. Barring a few minor technocratic differences, all agree that immigration is economically beneficial and culturally enriching.
So what’s the problem? Why can’t people just accept the numbers?
Like most politicos I support mass immigration, but have come to realise that the debate is about more than just numbers.
As any immigration advocate who has found themselves in a debate on immigration will tell you, it can be a frustrating and asymmetric experience.
It’s not that the copious amounts of studies we cite are refuted, rather our opponents are arguing about something far more nebulous and unquantifiable. For most people, immigration isn’t about tax revenue or dependence ratios; it’s about national identity, integration, and real or perceived access to social services. ]
And it’s that mindset that the established political parties can’t get their heads around. While our political masters see immigrants keeping our labour market flexible and goods competitive, others see a race to the bottom and ‘their’ jobs being taken. Arguing that it was not ‘their’ job or that we all benefit from cheaper goods just makes leaders come across as aloof and out of touch. Political activists, generally middle class, already have a reputation as living in a world of our own, and this isn’t helped by their habit of engaging with people via spreadsheets and obscure studies.
Today’s MPs are even worse equipped when it comes to national identity. This is an incredibly difficult area for social liberals, given that so many reject the very premise out of hand. For many on the Left especially, national identity is little more than embryonic racism, an irrational and primitive sentiment that must be ignored or shouted down.
But by lazily equating concerns over immigration with proto-fascism, politicians and their supporters are questioning and ridiculing the very core of how most people identify themselves. They do the same with religion, but national identity goes deeper: anthropologically speaking, humans are hard-wired to feel affinity and bonds to people who look, sound and behave like them.
Even when you can drag your opponent back to numbers, warm comfortable numbers, the debate is still approached from wildly different perspectives. Not without good reason, politicians look at the macro economic data, big picture numbers and global trends. But ‘pesky voters’ insist on focusing on how immigration impacts on them as individuals (invariably including an anecdote about somebody they know).
For them, class sizes, doctors’ waiting rooms and social housing waiting lists are the effects of immigration. It doesn’t matter that immigrants paid taxes to pay for teachers, or that immigrants staff the NHS or build the very same social houses. In their eyes, these all can and should be done by native Brits and no about of academic literature can argue with that.
While we know that keeping wages under control is good for the economy in the long term because it keeps down inflation and allows more money for investment most people have more immediate concerns, and see only their monthly pay packet looking worryingly similar to how it did three years ago. For voters, take home salary is the economy. Access to social services is the government.
The tribalism of the two party system created an environment whereby career politicians could retreat into SW1 parallel universe and not have to engage with the Great Unwashed whom they secretly despise.
But Nigel Farage and UKIP, for all their make-it-up-as-you-go-along-ism, know how to speak to voters on a visceral level, and that’s why they can get away with gaffes and even the anemic manifesto of 2010.
If the Tories and Labour really want to halt the UKIP advance they’ll need to relearn how to connect with the people they’re meant to represent.