Published on the eve of the European Union elections, Revolt on the Right is a highly topical account of what the authors term “one of the most successful challenges to the established political parties in modern Britain”. Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin follow the UK Independence Party from its establishment in “the dusty office” of a London School of Economics history lecturer to its current status as the “most significant new British political party in a generation” under the leadership of Nigel Farage. Their most important findings concern the nature of the party’s voting base.
In short, Ukip supporters are not who we think they are. They are neither single-issue anti-EU voters nor middle-aged, middle-class Tories suspicious of David Cameron’s policies. Rather, Ukip’s support base is predominantly working class – in fact, the most working-class base for a major party since Michael Foot’s Labour. Drawing on an impressive pool of survey data, the authors show that those most likely to vote Ukip are angry old white men: the older, less skilled, less educated working-class voters who have been “written out of the political debate”. These voters attach a broader meaning to their dislike of the EU, linking it to concerns about immigration, access to welfare, Britain’s sovereignty and future, and dissatisfaction with mainstream parties. These groups had initially turned their backs on politics, but Ukip has offered them an outlet and a voice for their concerns.
This finding is significant. Ford and Goodwin argue that because Ukip’s support is predominantly working class, it poses a significant threat to Labour, not just the Tories as has been assumed. Therefore Ukip is dangerous. Curbing its support is not simply a question of the Tories pushing for stricter immigration policies and a stronger anti-EU stance. The party’s rise is largely attributable to its ability to push a “value divide” to the forefront of the political agenda.
Yet why should the finding that Ukip’s support base includes predominantly older working-class white men necessarily entail a big threat to Labour? After all, there has always been a sizeable proportion of the working class that voted for parties other than Labour. These voters could simply be part of the Tory working-class base, swing voters or voters who abstain altogether, all part of a pool on which Labour support does not necessarily depend.
And if this is true, how does it compare with support for the radical Right across Europe? While many such European parties make a similar “value divide” pitch, in some cases the support base differs fundamentally. For example, in contrast to Ukip’s angry old white men – and even the BNP’s angry young white men – supporters of Golden Dawn in Greece come from many different educational, professional, age and class backgrounds.
If Ford and Goodwin are correct – if Ukip’s rise isn’t just about annoyed Tories but about deeply disenfranchised, “left behind”, working-class groups – then Labour will find itself in a precarious situation in coming elections. Even more importantly, the cultural divide will play a fundamental role in reconfiguring partisan alignments, and Ukip may be here to stay. Yet the main test for the party will not necessarily be its performance during this month’s second-order EU elections, but rather the 2015 national elections and beyond.
Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain
By Robert Ford and Matthew J. Goodwin
Routledge, 318pp, £80.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9780415690515 and 661508
Published 21 March 2014