Back in January of 2013, David Cameron made a speech at the European Headquarters of Bloomberg. After spent Months watching his party's polling data and the sanity of his backbenchers steadily eroded by the rise of UKIP, the prime minister gave in and announced his plans to hold a referendum regarding Britain's membership of the European Union in 2017. But the speech, which threw British business into four years of uncertainty, hardly dented the political landscape and UKIP continued their surge. So why couldn't UKIP's supporters be appeased?
One man who thinks he might know the answer is Matthew Goodwin. Goodwin is the co-author of Revolt on the Right, a new book charting the recent ascent of UKIP and their charismatic leader, Nigel Farage. He has asserted that trying to find a link between Cameron's policy on Europe and the recent success of Farage is "futile" and that many of us have misunderstood the appeal of his party. By analysing the demographic groups propping up UKIP in the polls, Goodwin found that they are now the most popular party amongst the working class in Britain. Instead of creating a populist Tory rebellion against Brussels, UKIP have captured the older segments of blue-collar Britain, a group that Goodwin says have been 'left behind' by the march of globalisation, as politicians have increasingly looked towards international business and cosmopolitan minded graduates for support. This 'left behind' group were all but forgotten by the three main Westminster parities, who have each spent the last 20 years chasing the middle class vote.
It is for these reasons that both Labour and the Conservatives stand to lose out. It seems that no matter what Cameron and Miliband say, they are each destined to be perceived as being part of the same privileged elite and are often considered as being two sides of the same careerist coin. For his own part, Miliband seems to understand that whatever modern Britain is, it isn't working for everybody and as the leader of the opposition he has proposed policies designed to treat the symptoms of Britain's income inequality. These 'interventionist' polices are an attempt to say that government can act to transform the country for the better. This might sound trite but for the last 30 years government has almost always been discussed as the problem and almost never as the solution. But we may now be witnessing another period of political climate change, capable of rattling the cage that protects the ageing dogma of small government for the sake of small government.
In his new book The Society of Equals, the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon follows the history of equality. Rosanvallon argues that progressive (interventionist) legislation has historically come at times when radical communists, trade unionists, anarchists or liberals (or anyone else for that matter) posed a genuine threat to the political establishment. If any kind of revolution ever seemed like a faint possibility then those with power would be wise show the public a gesture that validated their seats at the top. This is what Rosanvallon calls "the reformism of fear" and it helps to explain why the welfare state emerged from the political and ideological turbulence of the 1930's and 1940's; a often referred to as 'the midnight of the century'. Today, populists courting those left behind by globalisation are threatening political stability across Europe. The Front Nationale in France and the 5 Star Movement in Italy are speaking to the same politically alienated ears that have found such a fondness for Farage. To make things worse, the traditional political classes have no idea how to counter them because their unprofessional and un-PC behaviour is exactly what endears these movements to their disaffected followers, who are sick to death of the professional politician.
Tory appeasement of Farage really is futile; Lynton Crosby can brashly bully the vulnerable all he likes but as long as the Tories are starting at the top they will never be able to beat UKIP (unburdened by responsibility) in a the race to the bottom. For Labour the dilemma is different. The disenfranchised portion of the electorate doesn't believe that conventional politics or conventional politicians (especially those from inside the Westminster bubble) can accomplish anything constructive, no matter what they say, but Miliband cannot use political power to fight that assumption without first gaining the trust of millions of people who refuse to even listen. It's the catch 22 standing between the politicians and the voters they need.