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The onward march of the populist right?

Nick Bird

One of the most curious phenomena of the last decade has been the development of a non-fascist rightwing populist vote outside the Conservative Party. The root cause of this has been the divisions in the Tories over Europe, mirroring the divisions in the British capitalist class as a whole about whether to throw its lot in with the EU project.

The Tories settled on a kind of hostile engagement, but can give neither side of the debate full expression without risking substantial defections, and this paralysis has created a space to its right in which some rather unpleasant organisms have begun to spawn. Discounting the short-lived Referendum Party, UKIP was first to grasp the mantle, providing a home for the exiled anti-European Tory right. In its wake now follow Veritas and the lesser-known English Democrats Party.

A quick perusal of the websites of these three parties reveals common political themes. They talk about defending the UK’s (or in the EDP’s case, England’s) traditions, culture and identity. Immigration must be firmly controlled and the borders protected, and migrants must integrate into the British “way of life”. We must leave the EU in order to defend our freedom, independence and currency. All the old parties have betrayed the British people but we are different, and so on. Also revealed is that these parties are overwhelmingly run by groups of white men (all of UKIP’s MEPs fit that description).

So what are the prospects of these parties in the coming election? Of the three, UKIP is standing by far the most candidates – somewhere in the region of 500. Following its breakthrough in the Euro elections last year, winning 11 MEPs, it claims to have scored the highest vote in the equivalent of 21 parliamentary constituencies. However, the chances of this (protest) vote translating to General Election victories must be minimal. There is a delightful irony in the fact that – because of the voting system – the only national elections in which the Europhobes of UKIP are likely to win representation are those to the European Parliament, and I’m sure they can barely bring themselves to cash their expenses cheques after every session.

UKIP’s chances have not been helped by the defection of its most famous MEP Robert Kilroy-Silk, former Labour MP, former TV star and legend in his own mind. Kilroy-Silk’s recent history tells us all we need to know about his character. Finding his employment with the BBC suddenly terminated after making racist comments in a newspaper column, he decided to re-enter politics and stand for UKIP in June 2004. Following his election as an MEP and having served at least several months’ membership of UKIP, he not unreasonably demanded that its leader step aside to make way for him to take over. Roger Knapman inexplicably refused this offer.

Kilroy-Silk then declared UKIP to be a hopeless case and went off to form his own party, Veritas, “the straight talking party”. After lengthy consultation with himself, Kilroy-Silk became leader of Veritas, and remains the only member that anyone has ever heard of. However, it is fielding around 100 candidates in May, enough to secure an election broadcast which I await with a growing sense of nausea.

Notwithstanding this farcical history, Kilroy-Silk must surely be the only candidate who stands a chance of replicating UKIP’s Euro success. Veritas and UKIP will presumably be competing for the same vote in many areas, and with the English Democrats’ thirty or so candidates thrown in there could even be some three-way fights for the hard-right-but-not-quite-fascist mandate. I would expect a reasonable number of saved deposits where one candidate manages to hegemonise this vote.

I suppose the one positive side effect of the present configuration of rightwing voting is that UKIP and Veritas will take enough votes from the Tories to damage their chances of recovering, yet not win anywhere near enough votes themselves to get elected (permatanned demagogue excepted?) and also seriously undermine the BNP’s potential support.

However, we can hardly be at ease with a situation in which the populist right is growing and even setting the agenda in some areas of policy. With the Greens and Respect hopeful of causing a few upsets from the left, the rightwing vote appears to be part of a polarisation in voting patterns caused by disillusionment with the mainstream parties and a feeling of exclusion from “official politics”. Whether the opportunities or the dangers of this situation are accentuated by the General Election remains to be seen.



April 2005


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