I take a fair interest in politics. I feel it is important to be informed about the world around oneself, yet I am also interested in politics as I am interested in what makes a good or well-justified argument, and politics is so littered with utterly terrible ones. To me, politics as a field seems to be almost defined by the phenomenon of people having very strong opinions on things that they actually seem to know very little about. So many standard political debates seem like textbook examples of how not to form an argument or conduct a debate. So many political arguments are based on fallacies and emotion, not solid logic; the British media’s latest furore over the United Kingdom Independence Party’s new billboard campaign, launched at the start of this week, seems to be no exception to this.
Comprising 4 different billboard designs, UKIP’s electioneering push for the 22nd of May European Parliament Elections contains some rather dramatic imagery, and even more dramatic assertions about the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union. One billboard in particular utilises a gargantuan pointing hand, a stock symbol of political imagery, with the claim: “26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?”. Predictably, and dismayingly, the campaign has been derided as “racist” by at least one Labour MP and the R word has been shunted into multiple headlines reporting the campaign in the media. Here, both UKIP and their detractors are conducting poor political debate.
Bad Debate #1: overreliance on emotive terms like “racism”
The overuse of the word “racist” in regards to the United Kingdom Independence Party’s billboard campaign is misjudged. First of all, if we go by the most pedantic, dictionary-precise definition of the word, accusing UKIP of “racism” can easily be refuted by pointing out that nothing in the campaign has anything to do with the colour of people’s skin. Yes, the campaign does capitalise on a fear of the Other considerably with its hyperbolic imagery and u vs. them mentality when it comes to issues like jobs and money, yet it is generally agreed that “the UK” vs. “Europe,” or even “British” vs. “non-British”, is not a racial distinction. A more technically accurate word to use may be “xenophobic”, a fear of the Other or the unfamiliar. However, I would warn against using this too because, in addition to technical or literal meaning, words also constitute social and emotive currency. (known to linguists as “connotation”). “Racist” is a powerful word in our society and, as I have written previously, powerful words lose their potency from overuse. When you throw the R word around left, right and centre, people will become desensitised and eventually stop taking you seriously. On the other hand, powerful words also engender emotive responses, emotive responses that subvert the ability of all involved, regardless of which side they take, to discuss an issue in a logical or reasonable way.
Secondly, likely against the wishes of though who use it, liberal use of the word “racism” actually works in UKIP’s favour: it feeds an established narrative of “those who want to talk about immigration and Europe are branded racist because the establishment are running scared.” It is obviously not racist to talk about immigration, even with concern, and 5 minutes on the Daily Express’ website will show you that people actually do such a thing quite freely all of the time. However, this does not change the fact that a good part of the public does subscribe to this narrative, rightly or wrongly, and the proclamations of the likes of Labour’s Mike Gapes only seek to validate this subscription. Above all, playing the racism card is a red herring: it doesn’t actually challenge the arguments made by UKIP’s billboards in any meaningful way. In fact, it doesn’t challenge them at all; it offers no refutation of the facts contained therein. What should really be done is to challenge UKIP over specious arguments and factual inaccuracies, which isn’t even difficult because…
Bad Debate #2: misleading arguments and crap statistics.
UKIP’s billboard posters themselves are full of really awful claims. Take, for example, the assertion that “75% of [UK] laws are now made in Brussels.” There is no source whatsoever that supports this assertion. It is false. It is utter rubbish. The “75%” figure comes from a mistranslation of a speech former President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pottering. What Pottering actually said was that 75% of all laws passed by the EU (and not within member states themselves) were made by a specific part of the EU: the European Parliament. He never said that 75% of laws that applied to member states were made by the EU. When you think about it, claiming that this corresponds to “75% of the UK’s laws come from Brussels” would be an absurd assertion anyway, because the only way you could logically infer that “75% of the United Kingdom’s laws come from Brussels” from “75% of laws in EU member states come from Brussels” is by assuming that every one of the EU’s member states passes the exact same amount of laws nationally (so the German parliament passes the same number as the UK parliament, as does the French parliament, etc.) which has practically zero chance of actually being the case. Here we have a political point based on a statistic that is not only completely false, but patently ridiculous.
Another billboard design sports the claim “The UK pays £55 million a day to the EU and its Eurocrats.” This isn’t quite as preposterous as the first statistic, but it’s still pretty misleading: £55 million is actually a high end estimate of a gross payment. This means it does not include any money that the UK gets back from EU membership, either directly (through rebates) or indirectly (through jobs created by membership, for example). I should take care to point out here that I am not trying to argue that EU membership is good value for money for the UK, it may not be, or that Brussels’ influence over UK legislation is not excessive, it may in fact be so, I am merely pointing out that UKIP’s arguments to the contrary are just not particularly good.
The last two billboards both focus on UKIP’s pet beef with the European Union: immigration. These posters play into the tendency to frame immigration as an “us vs. them” situation. Superficially, the logic displayed by UKIP seems to make sense: more immigrants taking jobs in the country means less jobs for British works. However, the simple truth is that things are never simple: jobs only exist in the first place because of demand for goods and services. Demand for goods and services comes from people, so how would firms deal with an increase in demand caused by an increase in the number of people? Well, one solution is to create more jobs! In this regard, immigrants can potentially create jobs just as much as they take them; the tendency to think of the jobs market as a zero-sum game is known to economists as the “lump of labour fallacy”. Of course, firms could just meet extra demand through offshoring or automation instead, but if there were no immigrants coming into the country at all, who’s to say that they wouldn’t do this anyway? Framing the shortcomings of our economy in regard to immigrants only focuses on what is a narrow part of a very complex subject: lack of demand, cautious lenders (particularly after the banking crisis), skills-shortages and lack of investment in infrastructure (“creaking hospitals and schools”) are as much ways of framing economic debate as is immigration.
Perhaps one the reason why the immigration debate seems so confused and emotive is because actual research into the effect of migration on British citizens economically seems so contradictory. As Fullfact points out, there seems to have been little actual relationship between overall employment of British nationals and the number of migrants from the EU entering the country over the past 17 years. Migration Watch purports there to be a link between rising youth unemployment and immigration, yet without conclusive evidence, this could easily be attributed to skills shortages or, as the Economist speculates, an aging workforce instead; it is not a political vogue to talk about the economic consequences of more old people like it is the consequences of more migrants however. Studies are similarly contradictory on issues like the effect of immigration on wages, as The Migration Observatory shows, and the overall economic effects of migration can be either positive of negative depending on industry, the skill sets of the migrants themselves, how “migrant” is defined, and the methodologies of the studies carried out.
Given that the economic impact of immigration upon British workers is so complex, it quickly becomes clear why the emotive and simplistic arguments of UKIP are unhelpful at best, and downright irresponsible at worst. It may, in fact, be better to focus more on the social consequences of immigration on the UK rather than the economic ones, of cultural clashes and communication disjuncts in British towns and cities; yet this is a discussion that must be considered and sensitive, not emotive and illogical, which brings me to my final point…
Bad Debate #3: being a bunch of massive hypocrites
It is not just the reckless employment of overly emotive arguments and contorted logic that belongs in, not so much Airstrip One, but Wonderland that our mainstream political debate lays bare, it is also the sheer hypocrisy of so many political positions. It is on this point that UKIP fail the most with their billboard campaign. UKIP’s almost entire brand image is manufactured on the premise of being the “straight talkers” of the British political scene, yet they have established themselves as all too happy to push hysterical imagery and disingenuous arguments on the electorate. This hypocrisy demonstrates the worst kind of pulling the wool over one’s eyes: appealing to fear and emotion at the expense of reasoned or even factually accurate debate in order to win public favour. It is a special kind of hypocrisy, a metahypocrisy if you will, in that so much of it rests solely on projecting one’s opponent as a hypocrite. It is pointing out the log in your neighbour’s eye whilst hoping no-one spots the Amazon in yours.
Whilst I agree with the United Kingdom Independence Party in that much of the political establishment has failed to grapple with sensitive issues such as immigration in a productive way, UKIP have shown themselves in being incapable of doing so either: preferring to shout superficial soundbites, misleading arguments and oversimplified factoids in regards to what is actually a very complex cultural and economic issue. Wanting to talk about immigration in an honest way is not racist at all, but accusing others of skirting around the issue then doing the same yourself, only from the opposite ideological direction, is hypocrisy.
UKIP’s hypocrisy will not go completely unnoticed: although it is admittedly a low blow, I have already seen a few pass comment on the party’s equating EU bureaucrats with lavish, “celebrity” lifestyles whilst Nigel Farage MEP swans around the country giving theatrical speeches and having lots of photographs taken a quaint village pubs without the slightest hint of irony. For me, both UKIP’s greatest strength and biggest flaw is their willingness to found an entire political image on the notion of “common sense” which, as I have noted before, is a toxic concept in the complex world of politics. Common sense leads to political positions that may be superficially appealing, yet poke a little deeper, and you find nothing but vulgarity and inconsistency. Let’s call UKIP out on all of this but, please, stop calling them racist.