The recent council and European elections in the UK have confirmed once and for all that UKIP are a genuine political force in Britain. In winning the European elections, and pushing Labour very hard in many local polls, Nigel Farage’s party should now be taken seriously by the Westminster elite, and everyone else who hasn’t really engaged with them. I am, like many others, guilty of this. So I thought I would dig a bit deeper into UKIP’s policies and find out what (else) they stand for.
Front and centre, of course, is the pledge to withdraw from the European Union and curb immigration. While these seem easy to understand, UKIP’s local and European manifestos are surprisingly vague on the details. Despite leaving the EU, it plans to ‘keep the trade agreements we entered as an EU member prior to the Lisbon Treaty’. Given that those agreements were replaced by Lisbon, this may be an ambition rather than a genuine expectation. And similarly, while UKIP wants to control our borders and ‘decide who we want to come and live and work in the UK’, there is no explicit mention of an immigration limit, or net migration target. Does UKIP want zero net migration? Or zero immigration? It is unclear.
If UKIP could negotiate an amicable exit from the EU, retaining much of our trading status, that would clearly be the best outcome. A fractious exit would leave manufacturers and other producers exposed, given that Europe is still our biggest single export market. That could be partly offset by better trade deals with other countries; but distance still matters for trade. The best we could hope for is that leaving the EU was economically neutral.
As for immigration, would we let skilled workers in? If not, that could pose a serious threat to our long-term prosperity: without a strong skills and knowledge base, the UK could slip down the economic rankings much more quickly, forced to compete with other countries on the cost of labour instead of the quality of it. If we do let some skilled workers in, then that will increase competition with resident Brits (much as immigration currently does). What is really needed here is some kind of education and training programme, to retrain and upskill British workers. But UKIP is strangely silent on this.
What about other economic policies? The only industry I could find that it actively wants to champion is fishing; while this will help some coastal communities, it is not going to drive up national living standards. Meanwhile, UKIP is not a fan of environmental economics: apart from reducing fuel duty, its literature explicitly cites wasteful wind turbines and solar arrays that force up energy bills. Bills are certainly higher because of shifts towards these technologies – but in economic jargon, that’s part of internalising the externalities arising from climate change. UKIP are not worried about saving the planet or the melting icecaps. Similarly, it says that money should not be used for ‘foreign aid and foreign wars’, suggesting a broader isolationist agenda.
One positive policy is to increase social housing ‘for local families’. Given the dearth of housebuilding in the UK, this is to be applauded, and should help ease pressures on house and rent prices. But it is unclear where UKIP would do this – they want to protect green spaces – or more importantly how they would pay for it. The cut in payments to Brussels from leaving the EU wouldn’t even get close to filling the existing budget deficit, much less funding homes as well. And given the cuts in fuel duty and plans to make council tax ‘as low as possible’ – even before UKIP puts ‘more police on the streets’ – the overall economic outcome of their policies is larger fiscal deficits. More spending overall, without any tax-raising plans, has to imply more borrowing.
In part, these apparent discrepancies reflect the transition UKIP is making from a protest vote to a serious political force. It must now start to present serious, costed policies and plans, detailing where money will come from for different projects and how it will deal with the deficit. At the moment, its goals don’t seem to add up in economic terms. The bigger risk is that its policies, as they currently stand, could even accelerate the long-term economic decline of the UK economy. Splendid isolationism is fine, if we all want it; but what tends to happen is that the rest of the world leaves you behind.