If racism means 'threatened by difference', then we are all guilty

Politicians should visit Boston, in Lincolnshire, to really get the message on the Ukip phenomenon

You have heard it again and again in the past couple of days, that reflexive self-flagellation that all politicians deploy in the aftermath of a chastening result. This result, they say, shows that people are sick of politics as usual; it is time for us to listen and learn. "People are turning to Ukip," Ed Miliband said wisely, "as an expression of that discontent and that desire for change." Nick Clegg explained that "there is a very strong mood of restlessness and dissatisfaction with mainstream politics". David Cameron promised: "We will be working flat out to demonstrate that we do have the answers for hardworking people."

So they've got the message! Just as they got it at the last midterm elections, and the ones before that. This is what such elections are for: a pantomime of messages, sent and received, but rarely acted upon. Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, not everyone is convinced. In the Lincolnshire town of Boston, for example, such protestations seemed to have failed to convince the minority of people who were on their way to vote on Thursday.

"They don't have a clue about life around here," says Lisa Watts, a stay-at-home mother of two. "Things have been getting worse for years and the only ones who are going to do anything about it are Ukip. The Polish who come here, all they do is cause trouble. They're the ones who couldn't get a job in their own country. They're the last people we want here." This is quite a difficult sentiment to imagine David Cameron or Ed Miliband feeling comfortable listening to and learning from.

Not all disgruntled Ukip voters have much first-hand experience of immigration, of course. But that doesn't apply to Lisa or to Boston, where most of the voters I spoke to said they would be backing Nigel Farage – a mood which could help the East Midlands region return more than the single Ukip MEP it did last time, when the European results are announced today. Boston, as the Daily Mail put it last year, is "the town that has had enough". The 2011 census found that 11 per cent of its population were from new EU member states, a massive change from a decade previously, when 98.5 per cent of the population were white British.

Walk into the town centre from the station and you'll find yourself on West Street, which, one lifelong local resident says outside a Lithuanian supermarket, "really needs to be renamed East Street". What does he make of it all? "You wouldn't print what I think," he says with a jolly chuckle. The window of one shop is full of job ads and offers of accommodation in Polish and Romanian; there's a poster for a Lithuanian entertainer and one in Polish encouraging newly arrived football fans to watch Boston United.

"I've lived here all my life and I don't feel the same about it today," says a woman of 51 who asks not to be named, muttering lest she be overheard by the small group of Polish men smoking outside Baltic Foods. "It's changed. The people, some are very nice but it's not Boston any more. I should think I'll vote for Ukip."

This woman would never think of herself as racist. She has some sympathy, she says, with Nigel Farage's suggestion that it's understandable if people don't want to live next door to Romanians, but he might have put it more elegantly. "It depends on the person: you can't judge them all together," she says. "I used to work in childcare and I met Eastern European families. They were all nice enough."

She seems nice enough, too. And yet her complaint about change must speak to some sort of prejudice. Because it is hard to make a coherent case that blames Boston's economic hardships on the presence of immigrants. Many of the shops now occupied by Eastern European businesses on West Street used to be empty; many of the migrants who have arrived in the area work in farm jobs for the most part shunned by the indigenous population.

If you're a politician looking for a way of listening and learning from the Ukip phenomenon, perhaps you can find it in this distinction: people in Boston are right that their lives have got harder, but they may not be right that this is because of immigration. Living standards in Boston have been hit by larger economic woes that have little to do with the immigrants suddenly in their midst.

Another way of addressing the question is to ask: when Nigel Farage said living next door to Romanians would be a reason for "concern", was it racist? The answers are telling. For Lisa Watts, who thinks they're all feckless, it wasn't remotely. For Aaron Smith, it was more complicated. Seconds earlier he had been explaining why he felt threatened by the changes to his town, but Farage's formulation gave him pause. "You can't tarnish everyone with the same brush. Yeah, that sort of thing is exactly why I'm torn about who to vote for."

The answer, I guess, is that Nigel and Lisa and Aaron and you and I and even Jeremy Clarkson are all a bit racist, if racism means "threatened by difference". There's not much point in taking haughty offence at Farage, who simply gains power from the idea that his views are somehow forbidden. The challenge is to find ways of thinking about politics that disarm that threat, and make our racism a strictly theoretical matter.

Sunder Katwala, director of the thinktank British Future, wrote last week that Ukip voters might be divided into "tactical", "engageable", and "rejectionist" segments. The rejectionists – like Lisa, who think immigrants are all lazy – are probably not going to come in from the cold any time soon. And the tactical voters will do so of their own accord. That leaves the engageable ones – who aren't anti-migration because they're any more prejudiced than anyone else, but because they're grasping for an explanation for what's gone wrong.

All this suggests that the way to deal with the Ukip threat isn't to do as Ed Miliband did, and ignore them; and it isn't to do as David Cameron looks likely to do , and pander to them. It's to make a case for immigration that acknowledges people's concerns without swallowing every myth whole; it's to identify the underlying problems that make xenophobic rhetoric attractive, and to offer solutions to those, instead. As Leanne Wright, an estate agent, puts it: "I wouldn't want to live next door to some of them, but I wouldn't want to live next door to some English, either. I don't really like any of the politicians, but I'd vote for one if they could make life round here a bit better."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
businessUber, Snapchat and Facebook founders among those on the 2015 Forbes Billionaire List
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Homer’s equation, in an episode in 1998, comes close to the truth, as revealed 14 years later
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003