Britain needs a party that proudly champions cosmopolitan values
Published by The Financial Times (17th October, 2014)
These are strange times. An insurgent political party has won a single parliamentary by-election plus the support of fewer than one in five British voters – yet it seems to be almost running the country such is the fear it has created among opponents. It may soon have a second MP, one more maverick for a fringe force that has never lacked eccentrics and egotists over its short history. Despite having few discernible policies beyond offering disconnected voters a chimera of cheap populism , dazed rivals are rushing on to its terrain.
The most blatant sign of the panic over the UK Independence Party is a nasty bidding war to be toughest towards those seeking to come to our shores. Yet polls show immigration is a comparatively minor issue for voters when it comes to casting their vote, however concerned they are about its impact on the wider country. Likewise, they see issues such as the economy, schools, health and housing as more relevant to their lives than endless wrangling over the EU.
Ukip’s rise is driven by disillusionment with an ossified political system, now fuelled by parties ditching policies once held dear and sliding around the spectrum like drunken revellers going ice-skating. Nigel Farage cleverly taps into antipathy towards Westminster, exploiting the fears of the old, the unskilled and less educated scared by the speed of societal change. Instead of challenging an outmoded world view and confronting empty rhetoric, his opponents pander to prejudice and fail to defend British success stories.
Mr Farage is also a beneficiary of the breakdown of our binary political model. The looming general election may show this in starkest possible style as multi-party politics collides with a cracked two-party system; the next coalition could be a rainbow of colours rather than just orange and blue. Disruption in the digital age does not spare politics. Yet perhaps this also offers an opportunity for voters dismayed by sneering attacks on metropolitan values and modernity.
Earlier this year, Ukip became the first party in a century to smash the Labour-Conservative stranglehold on nationwide ballots – but its triumph in the European elections was marred by a failure to win London. The city is younger, better educated and more diverse than the rest of Britain, making it less eurosceptic and less hostile to foreigners. Hardly surprising when one-third of Londoners were born abroad – nor indeed when the capital has been revived as a global powerhouse partly by migration. Even its schools, drastically improved amid this rapid influx, disprove nonsense spouted by the anti-immigration lobby.
London’s dynamic success riding the forces of globalisation puts it at the core of a region paying a third of the nation’s tax bill, the only one making a positive contribution to the exchequer. This success, so vital to Britain, is threatened by visa clampdowns, bile against immigration and anti-European zealotry. Meanwhile, politicians see the capital as a cash cow to be milked; witness the ridiculous mansion tax proposed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, essentially a levy on London.
Since there is now a thriving English nationalist party alongside the Scottish and Welsh versions, with both Labour and the Tories running scared of its upsurge, should London’s 8.4m people have their own political force too? One that proudly champions cosmopolitan values while focusing on genuine political failures such as inadequate housing supply, poverty and tax avoidance. It need not stand alone; Birmingham and Manchester similarly spurned Ukip’s siren call in May.
Britain’s political system feels like it is hurtling towards seismic change. The old order is under siege and traditional parties, spooked by a smart political insurgency, seem intent on hastening their decline by joining populist battles they can never win. So who will represent the “educated, cultural and young” – the people Ukip memorably admitted lost it London. Surely there should be one party standing before voters with a sense of optimistic pride in the nation as it is today, not staring back at a mythologised past – and if mainstream parties vacate this territory, it creates a gap in the political market.