Stephan Shakespeare is a founder and global CEO of YouGov.
A few days ago, I was interviewed for a Channel 4 documentary about the coming Euro elections and was asked whether UKIP supporters were racist. I answered that there was no evidence that they were. Afterwards, worried that my answer may be misinterpreted, I looked again at the work done by Robert Ford, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester, who has done extensive research on attitudes to immigration and race especially among the far right, much of it using YouGov data. You can read his arguments for yourself here, but my own conclusion remains ‘no’.
There is no question that a higher proportion of UKIP supporters admit to racist views than of the other main parties, but it is clearly a minority. Ford writes: “22 per cent agreed that employers should favour white applicants over non-whites, 18 per cent agreed that non-white people are not really British and 17 per cent agreed that black Britons are less intelligent than white Britons”. He also ran a number of other questions to get at ‘soft’ racism; for example, 64 per cent of Ukip supporters thought that Islam posed a threat to Western civilization – lower than among BNP supporters (79 per cent), but also higher than the 49 per cent for Conservative supporters and 31 per cent of LibDems.
Immigration, of course, plays a significantly bigger role in UKIP’s appeal than amongst other parties, but again opposition to immigration is very widely spread across the public. And while racists want stronger limits on immigration, so do a large proportion of non-racists.
So when asked whether there is evidence that UKIP supporters are racist, I say that there is not, because it is wrong to say that a party’s support is racist when the great majority of its supporters do not support overtly racist ideas, and when the implied racism of prejudice is very widely spread across all parties.
The charge of racism against UKIP’s supporters also misses the central point: UKIP draws its support from people who feel they have been ‘left behind’, people who are less likely to succeed in the world today, people who are struggling to keep up with change. Such people are inherently more likely to feel prejudice against those they consider outsiders. A party aiming to represent them will inevitably find it polls badly on progressive attitudes. In as much as the Conservatives, the LibDems or Labour seek to appeal to those outside the mainstream, they will unfortunately also find themselves with more racism in their ranks. Indeed, all the mainstream parties have embraced tougher messages on immigration to try to broaden their reach. Racism should be attacked as racism, and UKIP should be attacked (or supported) for its policies.