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Jonathan Cockfield: The established parties don’t get it. Ukip is a state of mind not a clutch of policies

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Westminster’s empty worldview: why feeling and sentiment as well as economic recovery is needed to defeat Ukip.

The Conservative Party is currently on course to preside over a vote-less economic recovery and Ukip is about to return its second MP.  It is all too easy to blame the latter for the former.  Such a view is arrived at by assuming that Ukip’s support is founded solely on the protestations of those who have done badly out of globalisation.  The implicit assumption is that voter’s intentions are only driven by strictly rational, financial considerations.  This assumes that if every man and woman in Clacton or Rochester suddenly became wealthier overnight, support for Ukip would melt away.  Professional politicians can only explain the prospect of a vote-less recovery as the result of the lag between the growth in the economy and the growth of voters’ bank balances.

The truth is that the motivations of Ukip voters exist in the blind spot of modern politics.  No easy portrait of an average ‘Kipper’ can be drawn.  It is the ability of the current mood to unite seemingly disparate groups in support of Ukip that has the established political class perplexed.  No matter how many graphs, tables and polls are produced by policy wonks, no empirically verifiable link or connection will become apparent.  No amount of ‘evidence-led policy’ will tell you what brings a retired lieutenant colonel in Wiltshire into the same political tent as a white, unemployed, single mother in Clacton.  Without such a diagnosis, formulating a strategy to stop Nigel Farage is virtually impossible.

The professional political class’s blind spot is a methodological one.  Since the mid-nineties, Westminster has refused to acknowledge the existence of any trend or occurrence that cannot be quantified or viewed through the quasi-scientific lens of professional politics.  The result is a perspective as sterile and empty as the philosophical position that denies there is truth to be found in Shakespeare because such truth is not susceptible to objective measurement. Deploying this methodology in frontline politics produces a damaging reductionism.  If a policy wonk is confronted with the fact that people are reporting their home town “no longer feels like home” or “feels like a foreign country”, these responses are immediately misread and pigeon-holed as concerns about ‘immigration’.  Condemnation of such perceived attitudes usually follows.

What is missed is that such remarks often have very little to do with immigration or racism.  To get this, we must accept that most people, most of the time, are good and decent.  Ukip cannot run on xenophobia alone.  Instead, such comments are better understood as a lament for a lost sense of belonging.  It is this that unites the retired colonel with Clacton woman.  Both come from social groups that began the 20th Century with the clearest sense of identity and standing in the social order.  Both have now lost this.  In these groups, community identity and social standards were unambiguous.  Members of both groups could take pride in what they did and who they were; they were frequently the most engaged and active members of our nation and society.

This contrasts with the middle classes and successive generations of immigrants.  Both of these groups are used to a more fluid social position.  This made them best placed to adapt to the breakdown of the post-war consensus.  The more established classes have been left behind, both at top and bottom.  Not only have many of the new disaffected lost out financially, they are also suffering emotional and psychological loss.  Metropolitan liberals have spent the last twenty years telling ordinary people that what matters is how different we all are while condemning attempts to celebrate anything that we have in common.  The nadir of this credo is the vacuous motto of the European Union: “United in Diversity”.  The result is that Nigel Farage’s naff, bring-back-the-fifties vision for our society is allowed to prosper, unopposed by a barren establishment worldview that is blind to the importance of feeling and sentiment.  A new politics of real belonging and attachment is urgently needed.

The absence of this sort of politics meant that the 2010 Conservative campaign struggled to find a unifying concept that could generate an emotional response to its otherwise sensible policies.  Conservatives have forgotten what Edmund Burke knew and what the Scottish referendum showed us; the most powerful and positive brand has existed in its present form since 1707.  That brand is our nation state with its ancient values and institutions; it is a nation that has done more to advance the happiness and prosperity of the world than any other.  A mature, social conservatism must use our phenomenally rich, shared cultural inheritance to unite the most established groups in our society with its newest and most vulnerable members.  It would take a truly socially conservative Prime Minister to meaningfully claim that “we’re all in this together”.

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Jonathan Cockfield
Jonathan Cockfield is a law lecturer at King’s College, London

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