In the wake of the European elections, much discussion in the media and the political parties has focused on what the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems should do to respond to the rise of Ukip. I just want to set out some thoughts, having seen the rise of populists in my home country, the Netherlands.
The Conservatives have majored very heavily on the need for an EU referendum and to curb immigration. Some in the Labour party have urged a tougher stance on immigration, while Lib Dem MP Gordon Birtwistle said it was time for his party to offer a referendum on EU membership. These panic-filled reactions rather miss the point of Ukip support. Lord Ashcroft’s polling company has done extensive polling on the drivers behind Ukip and its less about Europe and immigration than most people think.
The support for parties like Ukip are in large parts based on disillusionment with politics, which manifest itself in dissatisfaction with issues like immigration. The Labour government started to clamp down on immigration through a points-based system and the Coalition Government has continued to tighten the system. We’ve now arrived at a point where businesses and universities are saying that their growth and income are being frustrated by the reduction in skilled migrants. If anything the issue of immigration has risen on the political agenda over that same period, especially in the wake of the financial crisis.
Bearing down on immigration, or onshore wind subsidies, or gay marriage or any of these other issues that are said to be driving people to Ukip is not going draw away support for Ukip. You can see that, for example, in Austria where the right-wing populist FPÖ has been setting the tune for the centre-right ÖVP. The Queen Mary University Professor in politics, Tim Bale, wrote an insightful blog on the Austrian experience, saying that “drastic shifts on immigration and integration merely increase the electorate’s suspicion that mainstream parties are simply playing politics, making them less likely to believe they really care.”
Ukip is probably less like FPÖ and more like the right-wing populist parties that rose up in the Netherlands: charismatic, with a very thin policy platform and a broad group of disaffected supporters. In Holland, the wheels have started to come off the wagon when these parties had to put their money where their mouth was. In Government, the LPF and later Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) started to suffer from their lack of a coherent ideology and broad policy platform. They started in-fighting and splitting. The same will happen with Ukip when they have to make policy decisions in the European Parliament (as happened between 2009-2014) and if they get elected to Westminster.
The parties in the Netherlands sometimes collapsed (as LPF did) but successor parties like the PVV rise up. That’s because the disaffection among voters stays. To tackle that and bring them back as supporters of the mainstream parties, you have to look at what makes them so disillusioned. For example, the immigration concerns are often because people worry, rightly or wrongly, about the impact immigration may have on housing, education and welfare provision in their areas.
To effectively tackle Ukip you need to provide solutions that mitigate perceived immigration impact. We have a housing shortage in Britain and have had for decades. People worry about getting children in the right schools. People worry about NHS waiting lists and A&E waiting times. What they have seen in the last few years is politicians saying they will solve it but failing to do so. So we don’t need leadership on tackling Brussels bureaucracy now but we need leadership that stands up to the Ukip rhetoric and shows that sensible solutions to everyday problems can and do work. That is how you restore trust, not by running after your voters and telling them what you think they want to hear. They simply won’t believe you.
Henk van Klaveren