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Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (Extremism and Democracy)

Ford, Robert and Goodwin, Matthew J.

Routledge, London (2014)
ISBN: 9780415661508 (pb)

Reviewed by Ed Pertwee, London School of Economics

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Cover of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (Extremism and Democracy) The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), claimed the journalist Peter Oborne in 2011, ‘is in reality the Conservative Party in exile’. Perhaps the most important contribution of Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s timely study of UKIP, is to dispel this myth. Using a decade’s worth of electoral survey data, the authors show that UKIP’s support has a very clear social profile: it is predominantly old, male, working class, white and less educated. There is a grain of truth in the ‘Tories in exile’ thesis, inasmuch as many recent UKIP recruits have been people who voted for David Cameron in 2010. However, this represents a peeling away of Cameron’s blue-collar support, rather than a mass conversion of middle-class Tories. Writing before the 2015 General Election, Ford and Goodwin argue that Labour cannot sit back and hope that UKIP will divide the Conservative vote. That UKIP increasingly threatens Labour in its northern heartlands seems to bear out their analysis.

The overarching aim of Revolt on the Right is to explain how a single-issue, anti-EU pressure group founded by an LSE academic in the early 1990s has become a major political force capable of affecting national elections. The first two chapters offer a narrative history of the party, whilst subsequent chapters examine the societal trends that have paved the way for UKIP, the social basis of the party’s support, the attitudes and motives of UKIP voters, and the barriers the party faces from the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

A strength of the book is its insistence on the need to understand the long-term socio-structural changes that have fostered UKIP’s rise. The authors argue that a new social cleavage has opened up in post-industrial Britain, between an enlarged middle class that is economically secure and socially liberal, and a shrunken working class that is materially insecure and more socially conservative. Both Conservative and Labour parties have increasingly found it necessary to appeal to the former at the expense of the latter. Whereas fifty years ago poorly educated, blue-collar voters decided the outcome of British elections, today they have become spectators in the competition for middle-class voters whose values are often very different from their own.

Ford and Goodwin show that Britain’s ‘left behind’ groups share a distinct set of social attitudes to which UKIP appeals. They are sceptical about the benefits of EU membership, negative about the impact of immigration, pessimistic about the future, and angry with a political class they perceive as remote and unresponsive to their concerns. Whilst the importance of these issues is well demonstrated, the discourse of UKIP members and supporters suggests that their Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant, and populist views are connected to a range of other anxieties. These seem to include the changing role of women in society, cultural diversity, national identity, and gay rights – issues that can be difficult to explore through electoral survey data. Whilst Ford and Goodwin have conducted qualitative interviews, these are mostly with high-ranking party insiders, and it is a shame that we never get to hear the grassroots explain in their own words why they support the party.

Revolt on the Right is keen to dispel the notion that Britain, unlike other European countries, is immune to the appeal of the ‘radical right’. From this perspective, UKIP’s rise shows that Britain’s party system is belatedly evolving in the same direction as those of its continental neighbours. However, UKIP is primarily an English rather than a British phenomenon. Support for the party has been weaker in Wales and virtually non-existent in Scotland. The unevenness of its appeal suggests that UKIP may be symptomatic of more than just a value divide between social classes within contemporary Britain. Surely it is also symptomatic of the fact that the boundaries of that national community are themselves increasingly contested – something that I did not feel was explored in sufficient depth.

Despite these reservations, Revolt on the Right is the most serious study of UKIP yet produced. It is also very readable – no mean feat for a book of just under 300 pages, which contains nearly 60 charts and tables. It will be of particular value to political sociologists interested in ‘right-wing populism’ and in how political parties develop.