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."

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