Is the industrial reserve army a racist concept?

Author:Brass, Tom
Position:Book review

Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, Routledge: London, 2014; xviii + 318 pp: 9780415661508, [pounds sterling] 14.99 (pbk)

The most effective public condemnation of laissez faire capitalism heard recently noted that a real wage cut of 14 per cent since 2007 had been good for the rich, because it's cheaper nannies and cheaper chauffeurs, but it's bad news for ordinary Britons', leaving workers as an underclass, a situation described by the speaker as 'a disaster'. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that the critique was made not by someone on the left, but rather by Nigel Farage, the populist leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), during a televised debate with Nick Clegg, the Coalition deputy prime minister, in April 2014. This important but ultimately flawed book, a detailed analysis by Ford and Goodwin of changes in British politics over the last quarter of a century, sets out to explain how and why the shift in radical right-wing ideology has occurred.

Based on interviews, surveys and opinion polling data (pp. 290ff.), Ford and Goodwin draw a sharp contrast between on the one hand working-class UKIP supporters, who are 'older, less educated, disadvantaged and economically insecure', and on the other the 'highly educated, socially liberal middle classes' who support the three mainstream parties (pp. 10-11). Whereas the former are Eurosceptic, worried about immigration and changes in national identity, those belonging to the latter category are comfortable in an outward-looking society, and celebrate a cosmopolitan and globally-integrated Britain. It is suggested here that such a distinction may not be as clear-cut as the authors imagine.

Although UKIP emerged during the early 1990s, its support increased from 2009 onwards (pp. 76-77), when a combination of the Parliamentary expenses scandal and rising levels of immigration pointed to a specific conclusion: that elected representatives from all mainstream parties were simply in it for themselves; that all were going to promote and not rein in neoliberal capitalism; and, consequently, that all were largely uninterested in addressing the impact of the industrial reserve army on the employment/ income/livelihood prospects of their working class constituents.

In what way, Ford and Goodwin ask, is Europe important; and what is at the root of Euroscepticism? Although for conservative business interests it is the 'restrictive' (i.e. unwarranted) regulation emanating from Brussels that vexes, ironically it is the opposite that generates most hostility among working-class UKIP supporters: an absence of European regulation over the labour market that licenses an expanding industrial reserve army. Accordingly, workers are not opposed to immigration because they are Eurosceptic, but are Eurosceptic because they are opposed to immigration (pp. 146ff., 183ffi).

Deemed to be poorly skilled/educated, such workers are categorised in the book as having been 'left behind'. They now support UKIP, a consequence of having been pushed aside electorally by all the mainstream parties courting the votes of 'the professional middle classes', who are qualified graduates. The latter, Ford and Goodwin (pp. 117, 122-26, 152, 156) maintain, are not just beneficiaries of economic change, but are also in secure employment, and thus unaffected by the 2008 economic crisis, by rising unemployment and food prices, and by housing shortages. Because for them 'the problems caused by immigration' are 'mild', they--unlike those in the 'left behind' (i.e. 'victim') category perceive this process as beneficial.

While Ford and Goodwin successfully chart how UKIP emerged, less convincing are crucial parts of their explanation as to why this happened. Rightly, they identify among the main causes a 'left behind' perception that New...

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