As UKIP tops the opinion polls for the forthcoming European Elections, a debate has broken out on social media and the internet over how best to tackle the party's message of fear. In particular, should we call it out for being 'racist' and is this an effective political strategy?
The leading twitter proponent of the 'UKIP are racist' camp is Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges, who wrote the other day that UKIP was a racist party. On the other side are the political scientists Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford, who have just written a book on UKIP called Revolt On The Right and suggesting attacking UKIP is 'counter-productive', supported by blogger Sunny Hundal.
Of course, it is a bit of a false argument to limit yourself to one charge, as any successful political campaign will use a combination of strategies which can fluctuate depending on circumstances and tailored for specific audiences. For example, in this case, the message to 'soft UKIP' supporters will be quite different than that used to talk to people who are very likely to be strongly opposed to UKIP.
But, anyway, here's my take on the debate.
First, is UKIP a racist party?
Quite simply yes. It is deliberately whipping up fear - and by extension - hatred of foreigners, with its provocative posters and inflammatory language. It is deliberately exaggerating figures and playing on people's anxieties about immigration in order to win political support.
Believing otherwise is, at best, just politically naive or - at worst - giving UKIP leaders a credibility they do not deserve.
Only today The Times reports that a UKIP candidate calls for a ban on Islam and for all mosques to be knocked down; another mocks Olympic hero Mo Farah, claiming he can't be "British". Andre Lampitt, one of the stars of its televised election broadcast, posted a string of disgusting racist messages on Twitter about Africans and others, identifying himself as "Rhodesian". William Henwood, a UKIP council candidate, tweeted that comedian Lenny Henry should emigrate to a "black country". UKIP has belatedly begun procedures against two members, one of whom was a former BNP member and another who had donated to the violently anti-Muslim EDL. Other UKIP supporters have made (widely-ridiculed) homophobic comments.
Now, if a politician or a political party is deliberately playing the race card then they need to be called out. If we say nothing then we are implying that this behaviour is somehow ok.
Does that mean that all UKIP supporters are racist?
Of course not.
Many UKIP voters, however, are racists, or at the very least are intrinsically xenophobic. They may claim persecution by the liberal elite and the politically correct, but racism is too often a cloak for hatred and other intolerance. Goodwin and Ford's own research over the last couple of years clearly shows that many UKIP voters are opposed to any immigration into the UK; that they are strongly hostile to Muslims; and their opposition to the European Union is simply reflective of a wider cultural unease about Britain's multi-ethnic make up.
Of course there are people minded to vote for UKIP who are not racist. Some might simply be against any further immigration into Britain, while others are just supporting UKIP to register their disgust at the mainstream political parties.
The argument that it is wrong to attack all those who support UKIP as racist is clearly correct - but then I don't know anyone who is actually doing that. Just as we always differentiated between the BNP leadership and BNP voters, so too can we differentiate between those at the heart of UKIP who have devised their racist campaigns and the people who are tempted to vote for UKIP.
Should we label UKIP racist in our campaigning?
Yes, we should, though we need to do it in a sensible way.
Some would say that labelling UKIP as racist is both ineffective and counter-productive. They point to opinion polls which show no drop in support for the party following its many scandals. They claim that name-calling will actually harden support for UKIP. To me this totally misunderstands political campaigning. It's horses for courses. The message we send to one section of voters can be different to those we send to another.
In 2011 HOPE not hate produced the Fear and HOPE report, a look at the drivers of hate in the UK. It broke society down into six cultural 'tribes', depending on their attitude to immigration and multiculturalism. Two of the tribes were very positive about immigration, two really opposed. However, half the population were in the middle, with mixed views. The largest single group we defined were the Identity Ambivalents, those who in theory were minded to be quite positive about immigration and multiculturalism but because of their economic insecurity were nervous about further immigration.
Many of this group might be minded to vote for UKIP because of their strong stance on EU immigration. Therefore, it is vital that we explain to these people why UKIP's anti-immigration and economic policies will do nothing to alleviate their economic insecurity. At the same time, this group is broadly anti-racist and so highlighting UKIP's racism and the racist views of their candidates is clearly beneficial.
Likewise, because of the voting system in the European Elections every vote counts: it is vital that we mobilise the quarter (25%) of society that is very positive about immigration and multiculturalism. If highlighting UKIP's racism motivates these voters than so be it.
Simply attacking UKIP as racist without addressing some of the underlying issues behind its rise is clearly insufficient. But so too is pretending that UKIP is a neutral player, merely articulating the views of the vast majority of the population (Nigel Farage's line).
Yes, UKIP is tapping into popular concerns over the impact of immigration but it is also fanning the flames with its anti-immigrant hysteria and outright lies. It is poisoning the political discourse and encouraging a climate of intolerance. Over this, we should not remain silent.
In fact, the UKIP leader sounds worried. This morning he attacked me personally, and HOPE not hate, on BBC radio and in national newspapers, claiming I was a Communist and linked to the Socialist Workers Party (I am neither), or that we were linked to another organisation Unite Against Fascism (we are not) and that because our charitable (non-campaigning) arm accepted government funding in the past (now ceased) we are part of the 'Establishment' trying to stop them. I guess he must be feeling riled.
This weekend HOPE not hate is organising over 90 events across the country at which we hope to distribute over one million newspapers and leaflets. We will call out the UKIP campaign as 'racist' but we will also explain why UKIP's simplistic solutions do not answer the very real concerns of economic insecurity many people face.
The political mainstream is in a spin over how to deal with UKIP. There is a danger that saying it is wrong to call UKIP racist ends up as an excuse to do nothing. Not only is this morally wrong but it is ceding ground to the anti-immigrant party and allowing it to dominate the agenda.
To HOPE not hate it is not a case of either/or. We are celebrating our 10th anniversary this year and during that time we have run huge campaigns in which we ousted the BNP from most corners of Britain. As anti-racists we have a duty to confront racism and oppose those who are deliberately whipping it up for electoral gain. We can - and will - take on racial hatred. But we will do so understanding the economic insecurities that is driving UKIP's support and seeking to deconstruct it.
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