Another day, another twitter tempest. UKIP’s Teflon leader was the author of this latest storm when he not only called for an end to diversity legislation in the workplace but went on to claim that British jobs for British workers was an acceptable employment policy. Needless to say Farage’s polices were met with reactions ranging from eye-rolling derision to bile boiling hysteria; indeed anti UKIP sentiments are one of the few things that can bring libertarians and socialists together in common cause.
So is this just another UKIP gaffe, or is Farage merely walking a well-trodden path? Why do our politicians keep drifting back to this ethereal pledge that they know full well they can’t make good on? And why do we keep letting them?
The answer to the first point should be obvious; it’s the run up to a General Election. After years of obscurity as a single issue party, UKIP have groped and stumbled their way into quite a nice little nook on the political spectrum, namely that of a socially conservative but economically protectionist party of nostalgia. Farage has positioned himself in a way that appeals to both unapologetic Thatcherites on the Right and the Labour of your grandparent’s generation on the Left. As such UKIP are poised to take chunks out of both Labour and the Tories across the country, planting themselves as the main opposition to Labour in Northern towns, and the only alternative to the Tories in the Lincolnshire and the Home Counties.
This last announcement was not a gaff. This was well calculated grenade rolled into the political living room. Totemic phrases like ‘British jobs for British workers’ fire up the UKIP faithful in the same way that talk of renationalising the railways does for Labour. It also puts Labour and the Tories in an awkward spot. Academics, economists and lawyers know the statement ‘British jobs’ doesn’t hold water and so is scarcely worth dignifying with a response, but in age of sound bites, saying nothing isn’t an option. If Labour come out too strongly against Farage they risk pushing their core vote into his arms, but not opposing strongly enough and the Greens and Lib Dems will gladly mop up the Progressives who already think Labour are pandering to xenophobes. The Tories too face a dilemma; come out in favour of a free and open labour market (one of the British economy’s greatest assets) and you push disgruntled older Tories away, but stay silent and they look to be implicitly agreeing with UKIP, making the chances of working with the Lib Dems now and in the future that much harder.
But didn’t the then Labour leader Gordon Brown pledged ‘British jobs for British workers’ in the run up to the 2010 General Election? Flirting with nativist employment laws let Labour address some of the concerns about immigration without having to use the ‘I’ word. It was just as vague and unworkable coming from a Labour mouth as a UKIP one, but of course let’s not something as petty as that get in the way of our ritual UKIP bashing. Gross hypocrisy aside, Labour had far more wiggle room in 2010 and could afford to dip their toe into the protectionist pond. UKIP were still obsessed with the EU and very much a Tory problem, and the Greens were confined to the Brighton Pavilion.
Both Labour and the Tories like to sound tough on immigration without having to actually do anything. This isn’t unique to Britain. That’s not the story here. What makes this interesting is why a near identical UKIP pledge begets such a different reaction. The answer to this is twofold: firstly, a not-insignificant proportion of the politically aware citizenry have anti-UKIPism as their default setting. Anything that comes out of the purple team’s corner is scrutinised and picked over with far more vigour than is afforded other party’s announcements and activities. An awful lot of people want to hate UKIP and actively look for sticks with which to beat them, even when that’s a stick their own party deserve a thrashing with. Secondly, even for those who don’t get off on loathing UKIP, there’s a belief that UKIP actually believe in this stuff, and really would implement policies like this, and that scares people. We’ve become accustomed to the compromise and sober politics of centrist parties. We’re not used to people with radical ideas getting close to the levers of power. Like the National Front in France and Golden Dawn in Greece, when UKIP talk about getting tough on immigration people believe them in a way they don’t with the traditional parties, and so the reaction is correspondingly more vehement.
This won’t be the last ballsy statement on immigration from UKIP; they know their target audience too well. Nor will it be last hyperbolic reaction from their detractors. It’s going to be a very noisy election campaign.