Explaining and learning from the ‘UKIP surge’ in South Yorkshire

Explaining and learning from the ‘UKIP surge’ in South Yorkshire


Written by: John Grayson

John Grayson examines the factors behind UKIP’s recent successes in South Yorkshire.

On Friday lunchtime 23 May, as the local government results flowed into the BBC TV studio, Nigel Farage nominated Rotherham in South Yorkshire as UKIP’s ‘most significant’ result. He claimed that UKIP had led in the popular vote (41 per cent to Labour’s 40 per cent) as well as returning ten councillors. Half an hour later, Patrick O’Flynn, communications director of UKIP, spoke of ‘South Yorkshire, one of our new strongholds, where we will hold our conference this year in Doncaster’. National headlines on Friday and Saturday trumpeted the UKIP earthquake. In South Yorkshire the daily paper the Star called it the ‘UKIP surge’.[1] In the parallel Euro elections UKIP topped the poll in Rotherham and Doncaster, but lost to Labour in Sheffield and Barnsley.

The rise of UKIP in South Yorkshire has lessons for anti-racist campaigners and organisations.  Different aspects of UKIP come into focus when looking at its recent successes in South Yorkshire. Firstly, UKIP is not simply a protest party, a ‘people’s army’ against established politics – it is clearly ideologically driven, using immigration and Europe in its nationalist and xenophobic narratives and messages. Arguably, UKIP has contributed to the creation of a toxic ‘common sense xenophobia and Islamaphobia’ in British politics moving mainstream parties and political rhetoric to the right.

Secondly, UKIP is comfortable in appealing to the far-right voter, occupying the space and sometimes the rhetoric and tactics of the now fragmented BNP. Thirdly, the UKIP message on immigration is designed to create scapegoats (illegal immigrants, asylum seekers or simply ‘foreigners’) for the social effects of austerity, unemployment and long-term economic decline in areas like South Yorkshire.

Fourthly, in South Yorkshire, UKIP is contesting a very conservative brand of Labourism in three of the authorities – Barnsley has been Labour-controlled for seventy years, Rotherham for over forty, and Doncaster Labour has been riven by crises for years and the town elected a far-right mayor from the English Democrats, a party which has attracted former BNP activists. Labour is seen to have done little to oppose austerity and is often seen to have a similar message on immigration to that of UKIP.

The UKIP surge was about targetting

UKIP’s average share of the poll where it stood in the  local elections was around 22 per cent – less than the 24 per cent it gained in the mainly county council elections of 2013.[2] According to the BBC, in some wards in London with a significant ethnic minority electorate, UKIP’s share fell to around 4 per cent. But as the Observer pointed out: ‘While UKIP’s projected national share of the vote fell, it increased its number of councillors by more than 150 – from just nine in 2010 – by focusing resources on target areas’.

O’Flynn, as one of the pundits on the BBC local election coverage, argued that the example for UKIP was the Liberal Democrats under Paddy Ashdown. Ashdown (leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1988-99) managed to double the number of MPs for the party without significantly increasing its share of the national vote. The Lib Dem strategy was, through targeted campaigning in a limited number of seats, to build up local organisation on local issues, and win local council seats, and then return MPs.[3]

Journalist Daniel Trilling has revealed that in 1998, BNP leader Nick Griffin was advised by Alan Deavin, at the time on UKIP’s national executive, to emulate the Lib Dem ‘community politics’ approach; being seen to be involved in local campaigns and social life, ‘carried out in tandem with political work designed to sink roots in target seats’.[4] The BNP went on to build organisationally around racialised local issues often created out of ‘urban myths’ like the ‘Asian grooming’ of young white girls in Keighley in West Yorkshire in 2004 or immigrants getting council houses in Barking and Dagenham in 2006. Local racialised campaigns resulted in the election of BNP councillors in the North West, Yorkshire, Stoke and Barking and Dagenham, where they won twelve seats in 2006. Nick Griffin, as leader of the BNP, was able to build on these local campaigns and council seats to stand in parliamentary elections himself in Oldham West, and Keighley, and he was elected as an MEP for the North West along with Andrew Brons in Yorkshire in 2009. This personal electoral strategy culminated in Griffin’s humiliation in Dagenham in 2010.

In South Yorkshire, the BNP had managed to get a foothold in Rotherham, at one point with three councillors in 2008. It also put down quite extensive roots in Barnsley between 2005 and 2009. In Barnsley, the BNP was able to field fourteen candidates in 2006 and eighteen candidates and garner 8,000 votes in May 2007 and twenty-one candidates in 2008. By 2009, the BNP had a weekly stall in Barnsley town centre and was still contesting all the wards in local elections. One local Green Party activist declared in 2009, ‘Despite our best efforts, Barnsley has found itself labelled the fascist capital of Britain’.

In October 2009, the BNP threatened (although it eventually failed) to take a seat on the council, which would have meant Labour losing control of a council held since the 1930s. Even after his defeat in the general election of 2010, Nick Griffin planned to stand in the Barnsley parliamentary by-election of March 2011, but withdrew.

This by-election, called as a result of the resignation and later jailing of the sitting Labour MP, heralded the arrival of UKIP on the South Yorkshire scene, with its candidate Jane Collins coming second. Collins went on to fight the Rotherham by-election of November 2011, caused by the resignation of another disgraced Labour MP. She was elected as a UKIP MEP for Yorkshire in the recent elections.

UKIP following the BNP in South Yorkshire?

The tactics of UKIP in South Yorkshire have, to some extent, followed the election tactics of the BNP in campaigning on racialised local issues. In November 2011, when UKIP came second in the parliamentary by-election in Rotherham, it exploited issues of ‘grooming of young girls’ and the fostering of Roma children.

The success of UKIP in the South Yorkshire local elections suggests that, along with Conservative and disgruntled Labour voters, it is attracting former BNP voters.

In the parallel European election campaign, Nick Griffin was clear that UKIP was trying to occupy the space left by the BNP’s implosion. On 27 April, Griffin told the BBC: ‘If you look at UKIP they are using all our rhetoric, they are using our slogans, and they are recycling our posters and people like it.’

Former Rotherham MP Denis McShane, writing in Social Europe Journal after the local elections, said:

In Rotherham, where I was an MP, UKIP won ten council seats out of sixty-three. Three of the new UKIP councillors are Conservative Party wannabe councillors who moved to UKIP as the Tories are unpopular …  Rotherham elected three BNP councillors in recent years and it seems that the BNP vote has moved in toto to UKIP.

In their recent study of UKIP, ‘Revolt on the Right’, Ford and Goodwin argue that the profile of UKIP voters mirrors almost exactly those who have supported the BNP – in fact Farage argues that he is ‘quite proud’ of attracting BNP voters. Speaking at Chatham House on 31 March, he explained:

What we did, starting with the Oldham by-election in the north of England [in 2011] is for the first time try and deal with the BNP question by going out and saying to BNP voters; “if you’re voting BNP because you’re frustrated, upset, with the changes in your community but you’re doing it holding your nose because you don’t agree with their racist agenda, come and vote for us”.

On the evidence of local elections, UKIP has begun to fill the far-right vacuum left by the BNP in areas like South Yorkshire. At its height in 2006 the BNP nationally had 364 candidates and won 230,000 votes with thirty-three seats (twelve in Barking and Dagenham). The BNP then polled nearly a million votes in the European elections in 2009 (but still only 6.1 per cent of the national vote).

In the 2013 local elections UKIP had 1,742 candidates in 75 per cent of contests (more than the Liberal Democrats) and polled 1,141,487 votes, with 147 seats won at an average of 24.3 per cent of the polls. In Rotherham, where the BNP had managed to get three councillors elected in the past, UKIP stood twelve candidates in local elections in 2012, who polled an average of 25 per cent each, ten coming second. In the Rotherham parliamentary by-election of November 2012, UKIP took 22 per cent of the vote and came second to Labour. In 2013, a UKIP councillor was elected in a council by-election in the former steel and coalfield village of Rawmarsh in Rotherham.

Caven Vines, chair of UKIP’s Rotherham Branch, who was elected in Rawmarsh, has, according to the Guardian, ‘BNP links’ and a record of anti-Muslim statements. Vines, with his wife Maureen, was re-elected on 22 May along with eight other UKIP councillors. The Vines took the two former BNP council seats of Rawmarsh and Rotherham West.

Anti-Gypsyism in South Yorkshire political campaigns

The Rotherham parliamentary by-election in November 2012 for the first time focused attention on the local Roma community, as UKIP developed its scare campaign on the arrival of Bulgarian and Romanian migrant workers after EU restrictions were lifted in January 2014. Then, in October 2013, former Home secretary David Blunkett triggered a national moral panic around Roma people in the Page Hall district in his Sheffield constituency – perhaps trying to demonstrate to potential UKIP voters that Labour was also ‘tough’ on Roma migration.

The demonising of local Roma people in the national and regional media undoubtedly played a part in creating a political climate supportive of the rise of UKIP in Rotherham. On 11 April 2014, Channel 5 screened ‘Gypsies on Benefits: and proud’, which featured Roma families in the Eastwood area of Rotherham. The programme was trailed by the Daily Star, and Daily Express, like Channel 5 then owned by Richard Desmond (a media team who had also collaborated in Channel 5’s ‘The Big British Immigration Row’). A Daily Star article describe the programme in the following terms:

TV documentary exposes how gypsies are happy to exploit British benefit system. A new documentary is coming to your telly showing the lives of three gypsy families who say they love sponging off benefits in Britain. (Daily Star, 3 April)

One of the families featured in the programme was headed by a Slovakian Roma woman who, it was claimed, had ‘brought her eleven children and eleven grand-children with her to an estate in Rotherham’ to live off benefits.

The BBC TV news Look North programme from Leeds, on 11 April not only unusually trailed a Channel 5 programme with a clip from Gypsies on Benefits, but also followed up to test the local impact, sending a reporter to Eastwood on 12 April who interviewed (white) working-class residents. An interview with one woman was perhaps more an incitement than a query. ‘Do you think there will be trouble here as a result of the programme?’ she was asked.

The local impacts on the political climate leading up to the local elections of programmes like Gypsies on Benefits can perhaps be demonstrated by examining on-line discussion sites like the Sheffield Forum website and comments posted there:

Rotherham town centre is a Gypsy site … sad but true.

Saw a clip of this programme on look north earlier, and it focus`s [sic] on Eastwood in Rotherham, which is their Page Hall.

I’ve just tuned into this program [sic] and can’t believe it. Eastern European families of 15 on benefits. One man in Romania wants to get £40k of benefits, to then take back to Romania to build a house for his family. No wonder UKIP are popular.

Responses from Labour fuel the UKIP message

In the summer of 2013, after the Rawmarsh by-election victory by UKIP, the leader of Rotherham council made a public complaint to the Home Office and to its asylum housing contractor G4S about the numbers of asylum seekers being housed in Rotherham. The Home Office, it was revealed later in a National Audit Office report, had indeed allowed G4S to exceed the agreed quota for Rotherham, but a public protest on asylum numbers by Labour authorities in South Yorkshire was a very unusual event. It may well have been aimed at voters in Rotherham, showing Labour was tough on asylum numbers.

In April 2014, it was revealed that the Labour group on Sheffield City Council had demanded more government funding if they were to take Syrian refugees. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who is a Sheffield MP, criticised the Labour council for refusing to take fifty refugees because of the cost for the city. Clegg obviously wanted to play liberal politics in the traditional ‘city of sanctuary’, but the public debate became quite toxic, allowing a space for prejudiced and xenophobic views to dominate. The comments on the Sheffield Star reports on the issue were almost unanimously against taking Syrian refugees. The Sheffield Forum website continued the debate throughout April, with a great many reasoned arguments in favour of taking the refugees, but also a large number of opponents, some of whom linked the asylum debate to the Page Hall Roma debate and local elections:

There is a stronger case for taking Syrian refugees than there was for resettling the Roma here. That said, the council is right to refuse. They should also withdraw council taxpayers money from City of Sanctuary, Migration Yorkshire, Northern Refugee Council etc etc.

Send them back there is no room for them. too many as it is. hope ukip get in.

It is very difficult to provide more concrete evidence about the political effects of these toxic debates around Roma people in Page Hall or Syrian refugees in Sheffield, but UKIP did manage to get a foothold for the first time with three UKIP councillors and around 30,000 votes across the ‘city of sanctuary’.

In nearby Barnsley, less than a week before the local elections, on 16 May there was a remarkable intervention by the weekly Barnsley Chronicle which published an ‘exclusive’ report headlined ‘Asylum seekers put up at plush hotels.’ According to this report, Asylum seekers have been staying at two of Barnsley’s plushest hotels’, supposedly because of a shortage of space at the G4S Initial Accommodation Centre at Angel Lodge in the grounds of Wakefield high security prison.A total of 405 rooms’, the report suggested,were booked by G4S who were operating the asylum housing contract for the Home Office at around £100 a night.[5]

The Daily Express picked up the report the next day and estimated that there was ‘Outrage as taxpayers are forced to pay £900,000 bill’. In the Express, a UKIP spokesman said ‘While millions of Britons are living on and below the bread line, asylum seekers are living a life of four-star luxury courtesy of the taxpayer.’ The Express argued in its editorial that a ‘surge in arrivals’ of asylum seekers had caused the resort to hotels, concluding that ‘More must be done to prevent asylum seekers getting into the country including more stringent border controls’ and calling for measures to ‘remove the barriers that prevent those whose applications fail from being quickly deported’. The Daily Mail also picked up the story.

The strange feature of the story was that the police later said that G4S had stopped using the Barnsley hotels on 28 April and their use had been reported to local agencies months ago. Local campaigners had published reports from asylum seekers who had been lodged in hotels dating back to November 2013. The question remains why an editorial decision was taken to publish a few days before local elections. Comments on the story on the Chronicle website made it clear that Barnsley people understood the politics of the story. The very first posting was

When did Paul Dacre start editing the Chronicle? (Paul Dacre is editor of the Daily Mail)

Then subsequently:

This is not a holiday for the asylum seekers; they’re having a roof put over their head and food in their stomach. They are in a foreign country as they (the majority) are too petrified to stay in their own homes, often leaving their friends and family behind to seek a better way of life. Question the ones who seek to take advantage of our benefits system, but don’t tar them all with the same brush.

I think it is absolutely disgusting that me a taxpayer has to foot the bill for immigrants … I want a referendum now to stop them all coming, you walk around Barnsley it is not like it was, it is full of immigrants and I don’t like it, … Vote UKIP and stop them or vote for the other clowns and get more.

Barnsley at first appeared not to be part of the UKIP local elections surge – only around 8,000 people voted for them in local wards (890 in the ward where I live). But then they had only nine candidates in the town and these candidates averaged 30 per cent where they stood – one of them polled 40 per cent. In the Euro elections Labour only narrowly avoided defeat by UKIP in Barnsley.

UKIP’s immigration rhetoric and street politics

Nigel Farage argued in his debates with Nick Clegg that support for his kind of populist party across Europe will ensure that the violence of the fascist Right is contained. Rotherham does not suggest he is right. The success of UKIP’s xenophobic election messages has, on the contrary, coincided with an increase in EDL demonstrations in the town. Since the Rotherham by-election in late 2012 (where there was an EDL candidate), according to the Yorkshire Post, there have been three major EDL ‘protests’ in the town, each costing around £500,000 to police. And in the lead up to local elections in May, 1,000 South Yorkshire police were deployed to police 500 EDL protesters and a large counter-demonstration by the UAF. The EDL has vowed to return to the town ‘on a very regular basis’.

South Yorkshire police are asking for more funds from the Home Office to police the EDL protests, and the chief constable of South Yorkshire, David Crompton, is calling ‘for government officials to look at changing the 1986 Public Order Act so similar static demonstrations are subject to greater restrictions in future’.[6]

The UKIP surge continues to toxify the context and language of debates and anti-racist campaigning in South Yorkshire. Anti-fascist and anti-racist campaigns have in the past few years effectively countered the challenge of the BNP and their clones on the streets and in the town halls of South Yorkshire – but the struggle against UKIP is just beginning.


Read an IRR News story, ‘UKIP: legitimised by the media?

Read an IRR News story, ‘Sheffield’s Roma, David Blunkett and an immoral racist panic

References: [1] Ellen Beardmore, ‘UKIP surge in city poll’ (Star, 24 May 2014). [2] John Curtice, ‘Essex Man loves Mr Farage but London is not so keen’, (Independent, 24 May 2014). [3At the 1997 General Election, the Liberal Democrats won 46 seats, their best performance since the 1920s, though they did take a smaller share of the vote than they had done at the 1992 election. [4Daniel Trilling, Bloody nasty people: the rise of Britain’s far right (London, Verso, 2012) P. 75. [5Lynsey Bradford, ‘Asylum seekers put up at plush hotels’, (Barnsley Chronicle, 16 May 2004). [6Rob Parsons ‘Call for rethink of law on far-Right protests: police chief urges review after costly EDL rallies’, (Yorkshire Post, 23 May 2014).  

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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