Fringe parties and the dangerous allure of apolitical politics

Imagine a political party.

Its public face is a single, easily identifiable figure who receives considerable media exposure and is regarded as having a genius for self-promotion, while somehow avoiding the scrutiny that more mainstream politicians face.  Despite the fact that our public face is a seasoned and accomplished professional politician, the party seeks to position itself as being outside the political mainstream, confronting a political establishment that has lost its touch.  But the party itself is riven, fissiparous and indisciplined – its elected representatives, wherever they have gained anything resembling power, have proved to be incapable of wielding it credibly.  It is riven by defections and splits and vicious in-fighting, especially where those members have been recruited from other, perhaps more mainstream political traditions.  It lacks any sort of discipline, and has become a place on which mavericks park their soap-boxes. Their elected representatives in local government in particular have a reputation for not sticking the course and for embarrassing, self-indulgent grandstanding. Some of its most vociferous and destructive members have been won elections almost by accident, in the teeth of expectation. Ultimately, it is a party that resents discipline and has developed a fine contempt for the heavy lifting of democratic politics, preferring a sort of inward-looking self-indulgence even while it makes sweeping – and often unsupported – statements about the world and how it must change.

In the current climate, that description is likely to call Nigel Farage and UKIP to mind.  But not exclusively.  If you live in Bradford, it could be Respect; in Brighton and Hove, the Green Party.  And, although the opinion polls disagree on exactly how big UKIP’s vote will be, it’s clear that they’re going to attract some pretty substantial support in the European Elections later this week.

Of course in part this is a vote for a “none of the above” party in an election that many people seem to think does not matter; European Elections traditionally attract low turnouts and high fringe party votes, which revert to the main parties at a General Election.  But there is a deeper issue, one of confidence in the political system as a whole, and it’s worth unpacking it a bit – because the UKIP surge, if that is what it proves to be, is a an expression of a real despair and disengagement with the processes of politics.  UKIP may not be the answer, but the question matters.

The most dangerous thing about fringe politics is that it harnesses discontent with the existing political system while letting it off the hook.  Farage claims to be a political outsider – curious for someone who has been an elected Parliamentarian for longer than Cameron, Clegg or Ed Miliband – but notoriously styles himself as Margaret Thatcher’s true heir.  Get behind the populist anti-European and anti-immigration rhetoric and UKIP is a party of the hard economic Right – a party dedicated to flat taxes, taking away women’s working place rights, and privatisation of the NHS to an extent that even Cameron dare not countenance.  UKIP is a party that harnesses economic discontent, offering the illusion of radicalism while ensuring that the existing order would have absolutely nothing to fear from its policies.  The causes of the economic discontent that fuels UKIP are nothing to do with Europe and immigration – the serious evidence shows that both have created jobs and prosperity – but lie in the economic ideology that, at its heart, UKIP defends.

The Green Party is a more complex animal; it claims to be a party of the left in opposition to austerity and to what it often calls “neoliberalism”, and there’s no doubt that Caroline Lucas has become one of the most audible anti-austerity voices in the UK political scene. But. as I’ve argued before, the Green Party’s political methods can be deeply Thatcherite and consumerist. To give just one example, at an open data meeting in Brighton last week, Alex Philips, a local Green councillor and second candidate on the Greens’ South East list, argued that there should be no state restriction on online trolling or on the availability of internet porn while welcoming the growth of the Pirate Party: a position that sits uneasily with Caroline Lucas’ “No to page 3” campaign as well as being an approach that sees the issue squarely from the point of view from the “customer” rather than those exploited in producing the content; a consumerism and hostility to the state that is neoliberal to its core.  It’s just one example of  the inconsistencies within the Green Party between its socialist, its “deep green” and social libertarian wings; such conflicts may not matter in a part of protest but cannot be wished away in office.  At one level the Greens’ hostility to the whip is a “get out of jail” card for a party which – as events in Brighton have shown – resents being held to account to the point where the local Green MP avoids mentioning her party on her election literature.  UKIP and the Green Party may be as far apart as it is possible to get in terms of ideological positioning – but in terms of political method it’s not difficult to see why the Green Party has been described as UKIP for affluent liberals, its structurelessness and method meaning that its practice mirrors rater than challenges existing hierarchies, especially of class and gender.

It’s in this kind of politics that fringe politics reveals that, at heart, it’s deeply apolitical: it is an expression of a reluctance to engage, to get one’s hands dirty with the sheer messiness of serious electoral politics, which involves complex and sometimes painful trade-offs and compromises, and taking responsibility for the outcome.  It flatters to deceive; it talks about changing politics from the outside, except in practice it’s deflecting scrutiny away from the insiders.  It lacks intent and seriousness, and is often deeply simplistic in the face of the complex. It’s all about grandstanding and individualism, and falls apart in the face of the collective effort that’s necessary to effect real change.  It’s about protest, not government – and in the case of UKIP capturing that protest in support of power rather than speaking truth to it.

One of the things that led me into the Labour Party was the question of how far you can effect real change outside the mainstream political system; and coming to the conclusion that, actually, you can’t do very much.  It’s a real issue because, freed of responsibility, fringe parties are invariably able to talk a good talk, but their fringe status means they can influence little; even in more pluralistic electoral systems than we have in the UK fringe parties are required to undertake the horse-trading of coalition. The simple fact  is that all substantial social and economic change in Britain has been effected from within the mainstream party system – and the only exception in the last two centuries is the rise of the Labour Party in the early years of the twentieth century, reflecting both social change and the intellectual bankruptcy of nineteenth-century individualistic Liberalism faced with the complexities of twentieth-century society.

Of course it’s nowhere near as simple as simply joining up with a mainstream party.  The main parties must take much of the responsibility for the current crisis of democratic legitimacy – in particular the way in which, as a whole, the political “class” has become more homogenous and increasingly willing to take forward narratives that are simply not grounded in people’s experience – or, more precisely, to rationalise away aspects of that experience, and reinterpret them within an ungrounded and ideological frame.  The narrative around “benefit scroungers” and immigration is one example of that, in the way in which it ignores the daily experience of millions who have been marginalised from mainstream political debate.  Labour has to reconnect with the people who have traditionally looked to it to speak on their behalf.  And as parties on the fringes gain support, it’s worth remembering that Beveridge and Keynes argued for political intervention in markets and generous social security provision in the shadow of the rise of Fascism in Europe, understanding that economic and political inclusion was essential to a stable democracy.  At one level, UKIP is the revolt of people who were promised that the state would be on their side from the cradle to the grave, and whose daily lives are testimony to the erosion of that vision.  The anger is real and justified, even if the solutions UKIP proposes are not, and unless we understand that we haven’t understood UKIP.

The point is not to condemn people who vote UKIP, but to understand their concerns – which I believe to be rooted in economic insecurity and uncertainty – and to respond in a grounded way; and to understand how the politics of the fringe is actually a bulwark against change.  People are angry and disillusioned with our political system, and it is not difficult to see why; the political class has looked increasingly remote and self-absorbed. Mainstream parties must engage with the people they claim to represent, especially those they have left behind, and for Labour that means being grounded in the real experiences of people under austerity; UKIP – and to a lesser extent the Green Party – are a reminder that if we’re serious about change, we just don’t have the luxury of opting out.  And at heart, whether on the left or the right, the method that unites fringe parties is more important than the ideological issues that divide them.

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