Brought to you by the Conservative Party
The Conservatives are largely responsible for their present plight. Ukip may profess contempt for the Tory Party, but it is one of its products. The Conservative leadership and its press supporters always believed, like many right-wing toffs in the past, that they could control any insurgency their political tactics might evoke. For the last few years the Tory Party and its cheerleaders in the Mail, the Sun, the Express and (a little more decorously) the Telegraph have cultivated a populist rhetoric – xenophobic, anti-European, anti-trade union, anti-welfare – as extreme as anything we have known. And they have assumed that such rhetoric could be managed for the benefit only of the ruling circles within the party. But for several years it has been clear – not least to David Cameron – that this assumption is wrong. Every step he takes to ingratiate himself with the Ukip wing of his party – each step more extreme than the last – is a recognition that he has lost control. Once unleashed, such rhetoric can have an unanticipated radicalising effect. Margaret Thatcher and her supporters adopted a radical rhetoric when all she really wanted was to prop up a Tory version of the status quo. She lost control as a result and, in doing so, did immense damage to the Conservative Party.
I suspect that the Tories have always thought of Ukip as a slightly upmarket version of the BNP. But it is much more upmarket. The BNP was a proletarian rough-house party. There is nothing proletarian about Ukip and in Farage they have a smooth and skilful political operator. His insistence, for example, that he is opposed to unlimited migration from the EU because it forces us to exclude skilled workers from outside the EU is near enough to the truth to be plausible, to comfort those who dislike immigration as such but are reluctant to admit it, and to embarrass Theresa May.
The Labour Party meanwhile, given the now received view of its record under Blair and Brown, was always going to have trouble with Ukip. But the stance it has adopted, fearful and dominated by the ideas of the City and debased neoliberal economics, could hardly be worse. Ed Miliband’s confidence in the mildly radical policies that got him elected Labour leader has drained away. He is surrounded by people both in his own office and in the shadow cabinet who spend their time telling him he can’t do anything that would seriously offend the rich and powerful (which a mansion tax won’t). Their relentless negativity has weakened his leadership to such an extent that his only hope is that Cameron’s leadership has been weakened even more.
The difference between the life-experience of those who ‘advise’ Miliband and of those who vote Ukip seems now unbridgeable. He could change his advisers and free himself of the incubus of Ed Balls, but he won’t. Furthermore, the present structure of the Labour Party and its social decay in the country at large makes it difficult to see where an alternative leadership might come from, or who it might be – another sign of the disintegration of the British political system.