Twelve days ago, in anticipation of UKIP’s victory in the European elections, Parliament introduced a first law aimed at appeasing UKIP voters. The Immigration Act 2014 makes it a criminal offence for a landlord to let a property if the tenant lacks the right to live here. It will not be the last legislation intended to prove that our politicians are “listening”, but it may be one of the nastiest. How is a landlord supposed to know that a prospective tenant lacks immigration status: from their accent, from their clothes, from their skin colour?
We have in Britain a ruling class that is already intensely relaxed about racism. Just ask the families of the 140 black or minority ethnic people killed by police officers since 1990, resulting in not a single conviction for murder or manslaughter. Or, look at the Cabinet: twenty-two London residents, chosen without any discernible connection of diligence, morality or talent. A city where just 45% of the population is white produces a leading syndicate in which just one out of 22 members is black, and he was picked, it seems, chiefly to ensure that alongside the many former public school boys turned PR professionals there is at least someone to represent the most vital demographic – bankers.
UKIP are not bad because their Deputy Leader was once a young David Irving fan, nor are they undesirable because Nigel Farage has brought into life something we never had before, a second, still more expressly racist version of the 1990-era Conservative Party.
They are contemptible because the racism which they preach and justify is an obstacle to the one thing that could take us out of the neo-liberal moment which the vast majority of people in Britain, Europe and the world regard as utterly opposed to their interests. Sick of the way in which the public sector was dismantled in order to protect the bankers’ bonuses; angry about the running down of the NHS, state education, and care services? There is a better answer, of course, than racism, it is to let the people who work in the services – the classroom assistants, the canteen staff, and the doctors – run them.
But to get there, we would need a huge increase in our capacity for collective solidarity, and we would need organisations (the trade unions, the tenants associations…) to have vastly more willingness to fight than they have now. And how can we get any of those things, if the 20% of Britain that is non-white is having its very presence here questioned? Racism divides; it does not protect a single white worker, its sole beneficiary is the rich.
We live in a democracy, in which how votes are cast can be just as important as who is elected. One in three voters has just opted for the most racist option open to them. Every other bigot watching will take heart from this.
But if something new did emerge on the left; a campaign which mobilised; a force serious about its anti-UKIP politics, what features would it have?
Part of UKIP’s success has been the ease with which it has manipulated a class of journalists always receptive to the message that the poor are switching rightwards and the sole remaining repositories of virtue are well-meaning university educated professionals (“an MA will save us”). If you stick Nigel Farage on Question Time every week, it’s no mystery that he will start to look as credible as any other politician.
Anti-racists need to occupy this terrain. Use social media, makes ourselves the rapid response unit that the press goes to for an anti-UKIP quote. We should demand to go on Question Time, or Have I Got News For You. We are entitled to: anti-racists are the majority. And if these programmes refuse, we should challenge the editors who give UKIP an easy ride.
We also have to learn to distinguish the forms of communication capable of a mass message, and those (the more intimate) which actually persuade. If we are going to speak to voters against UKIP then we need to shed the idea that by leafleting a half or a quarter of a constituency, or even a street or two, you have persuaded a single anti-UKIP voter. Do it, this is necessary work. But a street in which every door has been knocked and every voter spoken to is worth 10 that have received a general leaflet. No-one should kid themselves they are serious about “stop[ping] the new right-wing populism” unless they have the ambition of organising in Kent, with 2 of UKIP’s 20 target seats, in Essex, and in Rotherham.
We have to win positions in the minds of millions of people. That means that even if we have a short-term goal of winning certain positions on the left (for example, that UKIP cannot be normalised, within the unions or the political left) – that can only be the very first starting point in a much, much longer and more important discussion.
Ultimately, anti-racists can only win, if at the same time we succeed in getting millions of people to identify new solidarities appropriate to an age where only a minority of people are in full-time work, and only a minority of that minority are in unions.
The new face of the working class cannot be a miner or a steelworker; the unions in those industries were smashed years ago. Nor will it be a teacher or a lawyer. Maybe the future face of labour will be a nurse resisting privatisation, or a precarious cinema worker, or a worker in a fast food restaurant or a sports shop. Whoever it is, we have to find the campaigns that can resonate with millions and push them as far as they can go.
Unless we can find a new “we” – against the rich – against the bankers – against austerity – we will be ruled for ever by laws like the Immigration Act 2014 with its barely concealed purpose of protecting those landlords that keep foreigners out of their flats by bringing back the once-familiar signs, “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish”.
And we will be doomed to wake up in due course in a political system in which the political choice is limited to whichever one of David Cameron or Nigel Farage is, this week, the media’s favourite “outsider”.