Hengrove is an interesting ward. In 2010 in the council elections (which being at the same time as the general election had the highest turnout of any of the council elections of the last 5 years) the Lib Dems won a large majority. In keeping with the experience of voters across the country – general revulsion at the Lib Dems record in office – their vote steadily plummeted. Then suddenly in 2014 UKIP came out of nowhere to win the council seat. This says to me that Hengrove is a ward where most people are tired of the establishment parties and are looking for an alternative.
The search for an alternative
Many people across the country are now increasingly seeing UKIP as this alternative. It’s easy to see why. Despite their constant gaffs and scandals, the ability of UKIP spokespeople – especially Farage – to speak their mind (no matter how controversial) marks a striking contrast to the focus group crafted sound bites coming out of the two and a half party establishment. The EU is a very flawed institution. It’s overly bureaucratic and undemocratic. That’s why the Greens advocate fundamental reform and a referendum on membership. Denying the undoubted flaws of the EU just strengthens UKIPs hand. On top of this as inequality has exploded over the last three decades in many ways things have been getting worse for ordinary people.
But UKIP offer no real alternative. Other than an opposition to the EU, UKIP support all the same basic economic and social principles of the establishment parties. Namely the undermining of public services and the rights of working people, and the channelling of wealth to the elite. They used to support a flat rate of tax for all at 31%, but had to settle for just lowering the top rate of tax to 40% (and raising the amount of money you can earn tax free) in 2014 as the party attempted to look ever more populist. This tax cut would be paid for by even more savage cuts to public services then the ones promised by any of the three establishment parties. They support further deregulation of the financial markets (the same deregulation carried out by Thatcher, Blair and Brown that largely contributed to the crash). Many of their spokespeople are extremely hostile to public health care (despite policy u-turns because of the unpopularity of NHS privatisation). Many of them are extremely hostile to workers’ rights – unsocial hours pay, holiday entitlement, maternity and paternity leave, union rights and sick pay. The majority of their policies represent a more extreme version of core Conservative policy.
More Conservative than the Conservatives
That’s why most of their elected representatives, key party officials, and donors are all ex-Conservatives or prominent Conservative supporters. Farage himself was a conservative activist for 16 years before leaving the party to found UKIP, who describes Thatcher as his political hero and UKIP as the only party truly keeping the spirit of Thatcherism alive. Their policies support the wealthy and the elite, and that is why they are mainly funded by some of the dodgiest tycoons and hedgefund manager in the country. Farage, a privately educated former financial sector worker (not a banker but a commodities trader) has done very well to pose as an anti-establishment figure.
Falling living standards and the scapegoating of Migrants.
Things have been getting worse for ordinary people these last few decades (especially in these years of austerity). The reasons are largely the result of macroeconomic ‘neoliberal’ policies. (Neoliberalism is the set of free market social and economic policies followed by Thatcher, Blair, Brown and the coalition. Broadly it is the idea that the public sector and state is automatically inefficient, and that private ownership and competition naturally drives efficiency, this advocates privatisation, deregulation of financial markets and cuts to public services).
But it’s hard to blame academic sounding impersonal economic forces for changes to your own life. It’s easier to blame a scapegoated ‘other’. Migrants are frequently cut off from us, both culturally and linguistically. Though going through similar social and economic experiences (though from a much more marginalised perspective) they are frequently newcomers and easily become this ‘other’ to many.
The main problems people blame on immigration is a shortage of housing, the overcrowding of schools, and the extra pressure on hospitals. These are all problems that immigration may slightly exacerbate. But the main problem is government policy and a lack of investment.
The Housing Crisis
The UK is facing a housing crisis. Under ‘Right to Buy’ council houses have been sold off at discount prices (whilst councils have been prevented from building anymore). House building in general as at an all-time low; the few houses that are built are increasingly luxury apartments to service the rich. Buy to let mortgages and tax breaks for landlords have allowed a very small (and increasingly amateur) group of society to dominate the UKs housing supply. Private Landlords have even now acquired many of the houses sold off under right to buy (passed on from their original owners) and are now collecting a huge subsidy through the housing benefit needed by their tenants. It’s not just that immigrants and asylum seekers have stolen all our houses – as some would say – but that they’ve all been sold off by the government and they haven’t built anymore.
The Strain on our Public Services
There is great pressure on our schools at the moment. But this is largely government cuts not simply the extra capacity of migrant children. Immigrants contribute through taxes and economic activity far more then they take out in benefits and using the public sector. Funding just needs to follow the changing population. Immigrants are younger and usually hold a higher level of qualifications then the average Britain, and are less likely to be receiving benefits and make a positive contribution to both our workforce and our society. As an aging society we need the injection of youth and vitality immigration provides to run our public services. The NHS is completely dependent on this vital function they provide. You are far more likely to be treated by an immigrant in the NHS then be waiting behind one.
Inequality and Austerity, not poor people from abroad
Our public service and living conditions aren’t being undermined by immigrants. The main problem is inequality, privatisation, and cuts to public services. The period roughly from the end of World War II until the advent of Thatcherism wasn’t perfect, but we had a much more equal society; in which full employment and a generous welfare stare guaranteed a decent basic standard of living for almost everyone. Throughout the later 1970s (the period of greatest income equality), the top 1% controlled less than 5% of wealth in the UK. Today they control 15%.
Control of the global supply of labour, the flooding of the domestic market with cheaply manufactured goods in the Far East, and the ballooning of the debt based credit economy, have masked the decline in living standards necessary for massive transfers of wealth to the elite like this. But there is only so far this can go. More money for the already extremely wealthy means less money for everyone else. Less money for wages, housing, schools, health care, public services and ordinary people.
A Real Alternative
As I have outlined in previous posts, the Green Party has policies that go a long way to addressing the inequality (and the establishment politics that fuels it) that so blights our society. Instead of acting as an establishment Trojan horse to implement even more hard line free market policies; the Green Party would stand up for ordinary people, and offer a real (and far smarter) alternative to business as usual austerity politics. I ask the people of Hengrove who revolted by our corrupt and exclusive political elite have voted UKIP in the previous election to look at the record of UKIP MEPs and councillors, and really scrutinise their policies. Contrast that with the record of Green representatives and the focus of Green policies and ask yourself who is a better champion for your interests, and a better option for punishing the establishment parties at the ballot box.