Politics: UKIP May Do To Miliband What the Front National Is Doing To Hollande
Whatever happened to François Hollande, the great red hope of France?
Elected on the back of an unfashionably anti-austerity campaign, Hollande’s much anticipated premiership has since been marred by scandal, ridicule and inadequacy. In a midterm approval rating carried out in November by YouGov, Hollande received only 12 per cent. His failure to hit targets on unemployment and debt has, in large part, contributed to this poor reading. So bad is the situation that Hollande has said he won’t seek re-election unless the economy recovers in the remainder of his term.
As Hollande struggles, the far right Front National party has been ready to gather up the victims of his failure. During the European elections, the FN won 24 of 74 seats, more than any other party in France, and it increased its share of the vote by 18.5 per cent. About 43 per cent of the FN’s vote came from ouvriers - working class people who traditionally backed the Socialists.
Hollande’s base was hijacked as his inability to deliver on promises - due in part to ineptitude and in part to the difficulty of breaking the austerity consensus - alienated people and pushed them towards the FN.
The story Hollande told about France was no match for the easy immigration-hurts-the-economy language deployed by the FN that is so attractive in times of economic hardship.
That same dynamic has seeped across the Channel and started to undermine the Labour Party in much the same way as it has the Socialists in France. The UK Independence Party may not be as brazenly racist as the FN, but it is running a xenophobic campaign, blaming immigrants for many of the UK’s problems. This is finding an audience in areas that have seen high levels of immigration from Eastern Europe, where newcomers alter the character of neighbourhoods, drive down wages and reduce prospects for those in low skilled jobs.
With a pint in one hand and a fag in the other, UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s populist message has struck a chord, winning two seats in Parliament and making his party Britain’s third largest - a recent poll put their support at 16 per cent of the electorate.
There’s no denying that UKIP is speaking to people who feel marginalised by mainstream political parties.
Today many see UKIP as the only credible choice, having watched the three main parties fall apart over the past six or seven years. Still, all roads - and most opinion polls - for the UK general election in May point towards Ed Miliband and Labour, almost as much as they pointed towards Francois Hollande and the Socialists in France in 2012.
A Labour win would be a middle finger to austerity and would damp the shrill tone of the conversation around anything that is, essentially, foreign. Or would it? Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has already pledged to continue the government’s spending cuts in the next parliamentary term should Labour win.where French voters have gone, UK voters may followAny toughening of measures on immigration would do little to curb the free movement of Europeans unless the UK leaves the EU, which Labour won’t do. In short, austerity and immigration would remain entrenched as the two big political issues much as they are today. That suits UKIP, and it would shatter any hope for change that Miliband builds with voters, just as it did for Hollande.
One outcome would be that, where French voters have gone, UK voters would follow. UKIP’s anti-foreigner populism could become more attractive to disillusioned working class Labour voters once it becomes clear that Miliband has few solutions to Britain’s economic and social problems.
It is not hard to imagine a large proportion of angry Labour voters, just like Socialist voters in France, going for the xenophobic politics of UKIP. There are still five months until the election and five years till the next one, but the circumstances that brought about the rise of the FN in France are playing out in the UK right now: an unpopular right wing government, austerity, a cowed centre left opposition and an ascendant tax cutting, state shrinking, anti-foreigner party.
A win for the left in the UK, as it was in France, could be shallow - pushing traditionally Labour voters to the right. Even if this doesn’t amount to a UKIP government in 2020, it would take the political debate into darker and more dangerous waters than it is now.
Both Conservatives and Labour have responded to UKIP’s charge by toughening the story they tell about immigrants and the economy. In five years time, UKIP’s power could be even greater, setting the terms of debate or even playing kingmaker in a coalition.
The more UKIP’s unsubtle and often ill-informed ideas are accepted by the mainstream, the more normal they become.
That’s why Labour needs to assert its values rather than chase anti-immigrant populism. It needs to recast the concerns of voters away from the murky xenophobic instincts of UKIP and show that there is another way for the country. This is something Hollande has failed to do and something Miliband seems destined to repeat.
About the author
As well as a regular contributor on politics for Disclaimer, Liam has written for the New Statesman, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post, When Saturday Comes and the Sunday Express.
He is currently back at school completing an MA at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London.
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