9 October 2014

Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s optimistic moderniser

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Douglas Carswell’s “Bright Purple” venture, to create a future-facing UKIP, may be the most audacious modernisation project in British politics, writes Sunder Katwala

Clacton Pier. Photo: Flickr via Paul Dennis
Clacton Pier. Photo: Flickr via Paul Dennis

Douglas Carswell will tonight become the first MP elected to the House of Commons under the UKIP banner. Observers across the political spectrum agree that he is a sure-fire certainty to win the Clacton by-election, overturning the 12,000 majority that he himself delivered for the Conservatives at the General Election, having changed party colours and resigned his seat.

Immigration is the Number One issue that matters to UKIP voters, nationally, so has undoubtedly played a significant role in Clacton’s choice of an insurgent party. And yet the voters of Clacton will be electing a strikingly pro-immigration UKIP MP, as he made clear in his speech joining the party.

“On the subject of immigration, let me make it absolutely clear; I’m not against immigration. The one thing more ugly that nativism is angry nativism.

Just like Australia or Switzerland, we should welcome those that want to come here to contribute. We need those with skills and drive. There’s hardly a hospital, GP surgery or supermarket in the country that could run without that skill and drive. Real leadership would make this clear.”

So a recurring feature of reports from the Clacton campaign trail has been candidate Carswell challenging voters who say they will back him because they are anti-immigrant. As the Telegraph’s James Kirkup noted at the weekend:

I can report that Mr Carswell is pretty open about his views on immigration. When voters tell him there are too many foreigners in the country, he tells them that they are wrong to blame immigrants for the problems they associate with immigration. It is perfectly rational for people to take up the opportunity to come to Britain, he says. The fault lies not with immigrants but with the immigration system that admits them: blame politicians, not immigrants. He also points out that immigrants make positive contributions to the UK economy and public services, especially the NHS. And on the whole, voters who complain to him about immigration seem to accept his arguments.”

The other defining thread in the Carswell creed is optimism. He could probably claim to be, with the possible exception of Boris Johnson, the most optimistic man or woman in British politics. He believes that Britain is “a much better country” than when he was born four decades ago.

Yet UKIP has not been the party of optimism. As the authoritative academic work by Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin sets out, it is not a ‘catch all’ party but has a sociologically distinct appeal to the voters who feel most ‘left behind’ by the economic, cultural and social changes of the last thirty years.

So, what’s going on? It seems a curious conundrum: the case of a pro-immigration optimist joining the immigration-sceptic party whose ‘left behind’ core voters feel considerably more pessimistic than their fellow citizens.

Carswell has a different view of the party he has joined. In his insistence that ‘UKIP is not an angry, populist rejection of the modern world’, he would appear to be embarking on the most audacious modernisation project in British politics. Move over, Tony Blair and New Labour. Never mind the debate about David Cameron’s Progressive Conservatism. What we could dub Carswell’s ‘Bright Purple’ project, to create a new future-facing UKIP, may well have ambitions to outstrip them all.

One simple explanation for Carswell’s pro-immigration stance is principle – and personality too.

It is clear that Carswell feels it is important for politicians to oppose racism, and to challenge xenophobia, which he calls ‘angry nativism’. And since he is in favour of the benefits of immigration for Britain, when it is managed well, Carswell thinks the democratic thing to do is to let the voters know that. He believes that politicians should say what they think – and that even voters who disagree may well respect them more for doing so.

So why choose UKIP? There is method rather than madness here. Indeed, there is a deeper, steely strategic logic behind Carswell’s choice to change party.

Douglas Carswell wants to get the United Kingdom out of the European Union.

That cause matters rather more to him than which major party leader gets to be Prime Minister next Spring. (“Different clique, same sofa”, as he has put it).

And so he has joined the party for whom leaving the EU is its founding mission and cause. His core aim is to make it fit for that purpose.

For its core cause could become a victim of the party’s political success.

In short, the Carswell defection is a response to the ‘Farage paradox‘.

As UKIP won the European Elections – a low turnout contest – it became clear that the rise and rise of UKIP has done nothing to significantly boost support for Britain leaving the European Union. If anything, the opposite is true. As UKIP’s profile and poll rating has risen, it has been associated with rising support for staying in the EU. (In fact, the latest Transatlantic Trends tracking poll suggests that this paradox may well be true of populist Eurosceptic parties across the continent).

UKIP’s intense appeal to the ‘left behind’ minority is pushing fence-sitters into the opposing camp.

Douglas Carswell’s most intriguing insight is that immigration might explain the Farage paradox. Even though campaigning on immigration looks like it has been the making of UKIP, being too tough on immigration could prove the breaking of it too.
Several months before his defection, Carswell responded to the Farage-Clegg debates over the EU, setting out a clear warning to his fellow ‘Outers’  that being against immigration could ultimately harm their cause rather than help it:

“Immigration, many Outers seem to believe, is our strongest card. It links one of the public’s number one concerns with the questions of our EU membership. Perhaps. But the Out campaign must not descend into any kind of angry nativism. First and second generation Britons must feel as comfortable voting to quit the EU as those whose ancestors came over before William the Conqueror. An independent Britain is not going to have no immigration. It will have democratic control over immigration – like Switzerland, where one in five workers is non-Swiss. Or Australia, where thousands of new arrivals become new Australians each year.”

So while Carswell’s case against “angry nativism” is rooted in a principled distaste for prejudice, it is also one of enlightened political self-interest too. His argument is not just that nativism is wrong in principle; it is also that it would irreparably damage his core Eurosceptic cause.

Carswell’s message was that the campaign’s embryonic title is ‘Better Off Out’ for a reason: because it has to offer a viable vision of modern Britain’s economic, social and cultural future after leaving the EU, not merely a lament for a lost past. Campaigning for a ‘no’ vote in a referendum would not be the job of UKIP alone, but the potency and profile of the UKIP brand means that it would be difficult for an ‘out’ campaign to compete.

Perhaps the only way to shape the Eurosceptic brand was to join the party that looks set to define it, and to seek to change it from within.

The Carswell challenge raises the question of what UKIP is for – and what it wants its high profile political insurgency to achieve.

UKIP doesn’t need to change. It should stay just as it is if it wants to fish mostly among the 25% of the electorate who feel most left behind by economic, social and cultural change. Its “party of no” arguments are already pitch perfect for this sizeable minority, who hear UKIP offering them something they don’t get from other parties.

That would be enough to win the low turnout European elections, and to put up a significant fight in at least half a dozen Parliamentary constituencies, in Essex and Kent, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire, and to establish a Commons bridgehead. That could give Nigel Farage a significant ‘wildcard’ role during the General Election – and probably a prominent post-political career in the media too.

What it could never do is get Britain out of the European Union.

That requires an appeal not to 25% of the voters, but to half of the country.

As Alex Salmond could tell Nigel Farage, that is a very high bar to reach. The Scottish Yes campaign peaked at 45% of the vote, and fell short of victory, despite all of the democratic energy and mobilisation of the Yes campaign.

There are three groups of voters whom UKIP has probably been doing more to put off than to attract over the last couple of years: women, young people and ethnic minority Britons.

UKIP has the most male electorate of any British party. Women are considerably more likely to be ‘don’t knows’ on the EU – but may default to voting ‘in’ if they feel that UKIP is seeking to turn the clock back several decades in general.

Both UKIP and ‘out’ are much more popular with those born before 1954, who have an adult memory of Britain being outside the European Union. UKIP has so far had a limited appeal to younger voters, who are considerably less likely to find the pace of change culturally unsettling, having grown up in a more diverse Britain. UKIP will need to show it can take its argument to first-time voters as well as to pensioners.

Ethnic minorities will make up an ever-growing share of the electorate, particularly given the younger age profile of non-white groups.

Now, it shouldn’t be hard to persuade non-white Britons to consider the case for leaving the EU. For most, Brussels is a faraway bureaucracy of which they know little. The EU institutions are strikingly white, lagging a generation or two behind the changing demography of our continent. And there is the practical issue that EU free movement means having to give preferential treatment to EU citizens, while tightening restrictions on those from Commonwealth countries with historic links to the UK.

But relatively few non-white Britons have seriously considered UKIP so far. Academics Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford have calculated that the UKIP vote is 99.4% white. Non-white voters can take a similar view to the economic and social pressures of migration, but respond very differently to arguments about its negative cultural impacts. Nigel Farage’s claim that parts of Britain have become ‘unrecognisable’ because of immigration can appeal to the core UKIP vote – though, overall, levels of both local and national belonging have risen  considerably over the last decade – but they risk sending a signal to second and third generation Britons that their own presence as equal citizens remains in question.

There has been a deliberate softening of UKIP’s language since the European Elections. New immigration spokesman Steven Woolfe’s first public comments on taking up the role clearly signalled that he regarded Nigel Farage’s comments about Romanians as a regrettable mistake, saying that “It is important for me that we don’t stigmatise or give the impression that we are attacking individual nationalities.”

So Douglas Carswell is not the only UKIP moderniser, but changing UKIP certainly won’t be easy.

If there are future defections from the Conservatives to UKIP after the Rochester by-election, Carswell may find himself joined by Bones or Hollobones, both of whom take a considerably tougher view of immigration than he does.

And taking the referendum challenge seriously risks trading in one of UKIP’s great advantages of assymetric political warfare. An insurgent party doesn’t need to worry about policy, or keeping the promises it makes in government. When trying to jump the 50% referendum hurdle, however, the insurgents will have to construct broad electoral coalitions.

There has always been a brand of libertarian Euroscepticism which is pro-openness, wanting to leave the European club to be more globally engaged. But it is much outnumbered, among the population, by those whose motives for leaving are considerably more protectionist.

A coalition between pro-globalisation libertarians of the City of London and the left behind voters of Great Grimsby requires a rather broad tent – but the’out’ campaign will have to answer the questions of what ‘out’ would look like if they want voters to seriously consider their pitch.

Perhaps it would take an incurable optimist to take on the task of changing UKIP and recasting the Eurosceptic argument too. It seems clear that Douglas Carswell will be giving it his best shot.


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