by Kevin Meagher
The sound of flapping emanating from SW1 is the panicky reaction to yesterday’s YouGov poll for the Sunday Times which has UKIP set to win next month’s European elections, leading the pack on 31 per cent.
But that noise is also the sound of Westminster’s chickens coming home to roost.
The threat from UKIP seems to mystify many, but probably gets clearer the further away you are from the bubble. As identity becomes more important in our politics, voters seek out those who look and sound like them and stand for the things they feel are important.
As both the Tories and Labour have coalesced around a new centre-ground consensus in recent years, leaving millions of their traditional supporters behind in the process, space has been opened up on both the right and left flanks of politics, with UKIP successfully fusing together elements of the traditionalist Tory Middle England and the disgruntled working-class.
There is nothing startling about UKIP’s advance, indeed it might have come a decade ago but for the fact the BNP exercised first option on becoming Britain’s reactionary, anti- politics movement of choice.
Of course, the BNP could never shake off its associations with neo-fascism and skin-headed thuggery. UKIP has no such baggage, despite the fact that some of its local election candidates are currently being exposed as crackpots.
For a new party with a skeleton structure, it’s hardly surprising they’ve picked up a few misfits along the way, even those with repulsive views like William Henwood, a council candidate in Enfield who urged Lenny Henry to “go and live in a black country.”
But UKIP is sharpening its act and digging in for the long haul. The party now has 35,000 members and wealthy benefactors like Paul Sykes, who funded their current poster campaign.
So how does the mainstream respond to UKIP’s insurgency? Well, not by shouting ‘racist’ at Nigel Farage and hoping for the best, which seems to be the current strategy. If we are saying that challenging the Westminster consensus on immigration with a few spicy posters is tantamount to the rise of the Third Reich, then what invective do we reserve for those with truly horrific views?
More prosaically, it doesn’t work. UKIP plies its trade as the outsider in the cosy club. Farage simply soaks up the notoriety as proof that UKIP is getting under the skin of the other parties. To voters inclined to wave two fingers at Westminster, it’s hardly surprising when the rest of politics gangs up on him.
But the politics of smear-and-point simply leaves us all with dirty hands. If our public debate has descended to sniggering about Farage’s German-born wife, then its presumably fair game on other leaders’ spouses too?
The only way to curtail UKIP is to remove the issues it feeds upon. Pro-Europeans who have misled the public for forty years about the scope of European integration and neo-liberals who offer the economically disadvantaged nothing more than the prospect of being priced out of their jobs by cheaper migrant workers shouldn’t be surprised when some voters throw the offer back in their faces.
Europe remains emblematic of how so many people feel that politics has moved away from them. Yet our political class completely under-estimates just how much poison has now built up and just how angry and disillusioned so many millions of voters have become. Refounding our relationship with the EU through an in/out referendum would help drain that poison.
As would being clearer that immigration and the free movement of people should fulfil its original purpose: facilitating a few Belgian architects to work on French hydro-electric projects, rather than allowing millions of eastern Europeans to undercut the low-paid.
It’s about our political culture too. A self-perpetuating Westminster elite, framing our public discussion and deciding which issues are acceptable and unacceptable, has served to alienate and infuriate the millions of voters who now flock to UKIP.
To see how our political class deals with UKIP on twitter is to read accusations of insanity, immorality or racism. Is this designed to win potential UKIP voters back for the mainstream?
UKIP isn’t bothered in the slightest that it’s mainly disaffected older people who are attracted to its unfashionable, reactionary message. As the academics Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford point out:
“UKIP has virtually no support among the financially secure and the thirty- and fortysomething university graduates who dominate politics and the media. Support is weak among women, white-collar professionals and the young. Ethnic-minority voters shun the party totally.”
But it doesn’t need to appeal to a wide spectrum of voters. It represents a niche offering targeted at specific groups. Neither Labour nor the Tories seem to understand that this is how the free market in electoral politics works: if you don’t want those voters who you consider hold outmoded views any longer, then someone else does.
Westminster doesn’t look or sound like vast swathes of the country any longer, or say and think the same things. Until it does, Nigel Farage will continue to blow cigarette smoke in the faces of our befuddled political class.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut