There is little doubt that Britain now has a 4 party political system as UKIP continues to notch up electoral successes. It topped the polls in the May elections for the EU parliament and has just won its first elected parliamentary seat in the Clacton by-election on Thursday; and narrowly came second behind Labour in the by-election held in Heywood and Middleton. Both the Conservative and Labour parties are rightly fearful of its threat in next May's general election. For a number of years, polls show that immigration (along with the economy) is the issue that concerns voters most. This is a fact that even Labour is now coming to terms with as it recognises that UKIP's clarion call for a firm control of immigration is chiming in well with a very significant percentage of its core voters, and is the key reason for its rising popularity.
UKIP reminds one of someone with a clear sense of direction but prone to periodic crashes along the way. It is clear that those who are voting for the party are none too concerned about the accident-prone nature of many of its members but find the direction they are heading very appealing. In coming to terms with UKIP's rise, the political establishment has to recognise that it has not properly considered the concerns of the indigenous white working class British population, including the often sudden change to their communities and neighbourhoods from a rapid influx of migrants. As Gordon Brown acknowledged in 2010 and Ed Miliband last week, such legitimate concerns cannot be simply caste off as those of racists and bigots. This contrasts with the considerable recognition and accommodation of the culture and religion of ethnic minority groups which are, in many respects, very different to those obtaining in a largely secular Europe. I would argue that it is this neglected but stark reality that lies at the heart of UKIP's appeal.
There is some evidence for this view in research conducted in 2010 by ICM Research for the Equality and Human Rights Council: Understanding the Rise of the Far Right: Focus Group Results. The aim of this research was to identify the reasons for the rise in support of far right groups in three localities (Blackburn and Darwen in Lancashire; and in North West Leicestershire) all with high levels of deprivation, high unemployment, and few life chances. The focus group survey found three 'threats' to the lives of respondents: economic decline and migrant workers taking what they saw as "British" jobs; the disintegration and segregation of communities that were previously ethnically mixed; and white British people reportedly receiving a raw deal in the provision of jobs and services. The report highlighted that 'There is the perceived failure of the main political parties to represent white British social and economic interests, or even to speak in defence of the British way of life. Some think that the Labour party has deserted its working class roots; others that the main parties never really represented them in the first place. In the resulting vacuum, they are looking for a political alternative'. Thankfully, the far right alternative that was on offer in previous years, the British National Party, has now pretty much imploded but the desire for a political alternative that addresses these concerns, remains. Into this political vacuum has entered UKIP.
The reference to the 'erosion of church' as a cause of concern to ordinary people is odd given the precipitous decline in the espousing and practising of Christian belief and concomitant decline in church attendance. One explanation may be that whereas the church was important to previous generations, and gave a sense of community, the fact that this is no longer the case contrasts with ethnic minority settlers for whom religion is of immense importance to their sense of self-identity. An increasingly secular white population therefore finds this discomfiting and acknowledges that identities powerfully based on religion can be a driver of separation and self-segregation. Accordingly, in reaction to this, there appears to be an assertion of Christian cultural identity without adherence to the beliefs and rituals.
It is striking that UKIP's support in London is generally much less than elsewhere. But this ought not to be too surprising given that the white British population of London fell from 58 per cent in 2001 to 45 per cent in 2011. So whilst there was an influx of non-white settlers into the capital city, there was also 'white flight' as 620,000 white Londoners left the city; the sorts of people who are now UKIP supporters.
The sense of unease in this societal shift is provided by David Goodhart in his book The British Dream. He gives an example of the London suburb of Merton which has, in recent years, become 'super diverse', that is, attracted an array of sizeable migrant communities from around the world, including that of Ahmadi Muslims. The latter group, after a long battle over planning permission, has built a large mosque; in similar vein, a large traditional pub has been replaced by a Sunni Islamic centre. Goodhart points out that 'the Ahmadis are model immigrants in many ways. They preach an ecumenical form of Islam and are grateful to be given refuge in this country. But to many locals that's not the point. As one man described as White Heritage Elder Male in the jargon of race relations said: "We've lost this place to other cultures ... it's not English anymore"'. This is something Nigel Farage honed in on in his speech at the UKIP spring conference on 28th February when he argued that migration has made parts of the UK 'unrecognisable'.
In light of UKIP's success, attention must turn with much vigour on the part of national and local governments to the task of integrating well the large numbers of immigrants who have settled in the country. If this is done properly, there is every reason to hope that the issue of immigration, which now elicits so much concern across classes and ethnicities, will subside in importance to the levels obtaining in the early 1990s, and Britain will be the better for it.