There seems to be an unspoken rule in politics. You can’t call voters racist. Ever. Even UKIP ones. It’s banned. Off limits. Verboten, as Mrs Farage might say.
If we really want to stop the rise of UKIP the most important question isn’t actually whether their supporters are racist or not, it’s why they hold these views on immigration, and how we get them to think differently. In short, Labour needs to stop being UKIP-lite with its immigration messaging and tackle the root cause of the rising xenophobia afflicting parts of our country.
Across Britain, hundreds of towns have hit hard times as the industries on which they rely have disappeared. The seaside towns of Kent and Essex where UKIP are making the biggest impact are classic examples of this. As the primary industry of tourism disappears large numbers of people have fallen into poverty and immigration is taking the blame – despite the fact it’s actually comparatively minimal in these areas. It isn’t surprising that those perennial opportunists at UKIP came along to turn all that bitterness and disillusionment into support for their cause.
While traditional industries in these areas suffer, the digital technology sector, based in our major cities, is thriving. Currently estimated to contribute around £100bn to the UK economy, if the digital economy was a traditional sector, it would be bigger than UK construction, education and utilities.
Just down the road from where I live in Chingford is one of the areas principally behind this growth – namely the Old Street area of London. Silicon Roundabout, as it is known, is now up there with Silicon Valley in the USA as a global leader in digital technology.
Silicon Roundabout became a haven for tech startups not because it was achingly cool as it is now, but because it was the only affordable office space within spitting distance of the City. It was rough as hell, but cheap as chips, and no one else much fancied using it. In short, the perfect place for enterprising young entrepreneurs with little in the way of capital but equipped with great ideas and a formidable work ethic.
The seaside towns where UKIP is currently making hay share something fundamental with Old Street, as it was back in the day. They possess a wealth of business space just waiting to be put to good use and a population with a long tradition of starting and running small businesses. Once upon a time that might have involved ice cream parlours and fish and chip shops, but there is nothing stopping it evolving into e-commerce and app development. Digital technology is virtual. By definition it can happen anywhere. It just needs collaborative space, entrepreneurial minds and really top-notch broadband.
With a little bit of entrepreneurial thinking from the local councils, there is no reason why the empty retail space, amusement arcades and offices in Margate and Clacton can’t become mini versions of Silicon Roundabout. A relaxation of the planning use rules around retail space would be required, but when the choice is between derelict retail space and a thriving shared workspace for entrepreneurs, it should be an easy decision to make.
UKIP are attracting disillusioned people made bitter by a lack of opportunity. The best way we have of fighting back is to remove the root cause of that feeling and spread the digital wealth from our cities out across the rest of the country.