“Label the behaviour not the person”: why we shouldn’t call Ukip a racist party

by Stephen Tall on May 10, 2014

ukip-poster-manchesterFor once I’m going to agree with Nigel Farage. Speaking at a rally this week, he pleaded with the media and public, “from this moment on please do not ever call us a racist party. We are not a racist party.”

As rallying cries go, it’s not the most ambitious. But, then, Ukip’s not an ambitious party. As Farage himself happily boasts, it has just two policies: withdrawal from the EU and bringing back grammar schools. It doesn’t really matter, though. Ukip is defined by what it’s against, not what it’s for, and a significant minority of voters like its unrepentantly chippy contrariness.

But to define Ukip as a racist party is both lazy and self-defeating. It is lazy because being against the UK’s membership of the European Union and being against unrestricted immigration within the EU are neither inherently racist positions. And it is self-defeating because the accusation of racism – dependent as it is on a category error – lacks all credibility.

Being anti-immigration is lots of other things… Deeply illiberal (the state telling citizens where they can’t live – and Farage claims he’s a libertarian!), economically flawed (immigrants are net contributors to the country), and utterly wrong-headed (the UK benefits massively from immigrants’ ambition, just as they benefit from the opportunities gained). But not racist.

For those of us who object to Ukip’s policies, it’s expedient, and probably comforting, to fling the racism charge around. It demonstrates to ourselves and others quite how fiercely we disagree with them. Maybe we hope too that it will taint Ukip, stigmatise the party in the eyes of their potential voters. It’s plausible. After all, the Tory brand was further toxified in the eyes of many by its 2005 poster campaign, ‘It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration’.

But, then, the Conservatives are a mainstream national party which needs to draw on votes across the country in order to win a majority. By contrast Ukip revel in their “we’re just telling it like it is” ersatz honesty, knowing it appeals to a limited but ultra-motivated segment of the population which feels disenfranchised. Ukip’s is the ultimate core vote strategy.

Claiming that Ukip’s policies are racist when they’re not, claiming that Ukip’s a racist party when it isn’t, plays into their hands. Ukip loves to play the victim, the brow-beaten, anti-establishment voice of the people stifled by a liberal elite that cries racism the moment immigration is criticised.

Actually, we’re quite lucky we have Nigel Farage. Seriously. Better Farage and Ukip than Marine le Pen and the National Front in France, or Golden Dawn in Greece, or Geert Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands or Jobbik in Hungary. It’s partly thanks to Ukip that Nick Griffin’s BNP, a genuinely racist party, has disappeared without trace.

None of which is to say Ukip should be given an easy ride. Quite the reverse. Their anti-EU, anti-immigration policies inevitably attract people who are xenophobic and racist. Ukip may not itself be racist, but there are most definitely racists in Ukip, and not all of them are in the closet.

Whenever and wherever racist behaviour manifests itself it should be challenged – just as it has in recent weeks as it’s been revealed that Ukip candidates have, for instance, described Islam as “evil” and told Lenny Henry he should emigrate to a “black country”. As Sunder Katwala of British Future said in a speech to the University of Sussex yesterday:

It is precisely because UKIP is not considered a racist party that it makes sense to call on Nigel Farage to kick racists out of Ukip. Nobody has ever bothered to challenge Nick Griffin to kick racists out of the BNP. What would be the point? There would be nobody left. As the final, fatal demise of the BNP this month will exemplify, Nigel Farage knows that no party which does not accept that black and Asian citizens are equally British will get a heading in the Britain of 2014.

Nigel Farage has promised he’d clean up UKIP’s act. He’s expelled people who have been caught, but needs to do much more to keep his promise to properly vet his candidates so that he gets embarrassed less often. He should also take more responsibility for UKIP’s local campaigns that fall on the wrong side of any reasonable democratic debate. Its important we debate how to manage immigration effectively. But Nigel Farage should promise that there will be no more UKIP leaflets comparing British people to Native Americans who ‘didn’t worry about immigration and now live on a reservation’.

Nigel Farage needs to tell UKIP candidates and local parties that voicing extreme slogans like “no more mosques” is unacceptable. This falls on the wrong side of the British tradition of religious freedom. It also voices a prejudice which makes British Muslim integration harder to achieve too.

… UKIP has had to ditch and expel candidates who have made racist statements – because voicing such views is repulsive to all but the most extreme fringe of voters. At the same time, many potential Ukip voters agree with Nigel Farage’s claim that charges of racism have been used too loosely, too quickly, and too often to close down debate about immigration. It is important, therefore, to make clear that we must talk about immigration but that we should do so without prejudice or scaremongering. It is this which will help secure the broadest possible coalition for keeping racism out of the public debate.

In other words, we should label the behaviour not the person. It’s an important distinction. Don’t condemn Ukip as racist, but yes, absolutely, we should condemn racism within Ukip. And we should expect Nigel Farage to do the same. Every. Single. Time.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.