by Atul Hatwal
Take a step back. From the Farage-mania, the pre-written headlines about Ukip surges and growing hysteria that is enveloping the main parties. Take a step back and look at the evidence. Of what actually happened during the European election campaign.
Ukip started this contest with a floor for their support of 23%. This was the total vote for anti-EU, populist parties of the fringe right at the last European election in 2009– 17% for Ukip and 6% for the BNP. Given the collapse of the BNP, Ukip were the sole heir for this populist right constituency.
By the end of April this year, Ukip’s momentum had carried them from their base of 23% to 31% according to YouGov. The highest they had ever registered in a European election poll with that pollster.
Up to this point, the direction of travel for Ukip’s poll European election rating had only been one way – up. There genuinely did seem to be a major electoral breakthrough in prospect.
But then something happened. The trend-line changed direction.
Ukip’s poll slide began when Farage’s comments about Romanians were first called out as racism. There was a lot of controversy at the time and a debate raged on the progressive side of the argument as to whether Ukip’s campaign should have been branded racist.
Setting aside the slightly ludicrous contention that racism should be allowed to simply pass without comment, the debate over whether confronting Ukip’s racism was electorally the right strategy can now be conclusively resolved.
As the spotlight was shone ever brighter on Farage and his words, and the charges of racism hit home, Ukip’s poll rise first faltered and then went into reverse.
What started with a Guardian front page on the 28th April, culminated in the now infamous James O’Brien LBC interview and the Sun editorial stating that Nigel Farage’s rhetoric about Romanians was, “racism, pure and simple.”
For millions of British electors, the coda from the campaign was clear. Ukip were guilty of racism and voting for such a party was a step too far. In cities like London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, Ukip were toxified.
Rather than continuing their upward trajectory into the mid-thirties, as seemed likely or even inevitable at the end of April, Nigel Farage’s party fell back by 3% in the final vote to register 28%.
The party’s ultimate progress beyond its base of 23% from 2009 was 5%. Not insignificant, but hardly the earthquake promised.
Then there were the results in the local elections.
Unlike the European election, there were no prior polls to track Ukip’s progress. But we do know that based on their results in last year’s council elections, their national equivalent vote share (NEV) was 23% (NEV adjusts for local performance to derive a national equivalent rating).
The expectation was that Ukip would exceed that mark this year. In a campaign dominated by European issues and with a national European election on the same day, the circumstances could not have been more propitious for Ukip’s advance.
Yet when the dust settled on Friday and the local election results were confirmed, Ukip’s NEV had actually slipped back from 23% to 17%.
And it’s no mere a coincidence that support for staying in the EU has risen as Nigel Farage and Ukip have become a fixture on our TV screens and in our newspapers – from 44% in November 2012 to 54% in May this year according to Ipsos Mori. Even entrenched Conservative Eurosceptics like Daniel Hannan are worried about Farage’s impact on their cause.
The real story of this campaign is clear, if only Britain’s media and politicians can remove their Ukip-tinted spectacles to see it: confronting Ukip’s prejudice works. No pandering or dog whistling is required. In this last campaign, it reversed Ukip’s momentum and contaminated their brand.
Over the coming year to the general election, Ukip will campaign hard on immigration. The lesson of the past few weeks is that the one way to tackle Ukip is to take them on and expose the reality of what they are saying.
If they stray into racist territory again, it needs to be called out, not coddled.
And on the substance of their charge that immigration is responsible for the ills of the nation, they need to be robustly challenged.
It means politicians, particularly Labour politicians, need to find the courage to explain why every problem in Britain isn’t the fault of migrants and how immigration actually benefits Britain.
Difficult doorstep conversations will need to be had. For example, on health, it will mean explaining that reason our NHS is under strain is not immigration but because costs are rising, we’re all living longer and funding is under pressure.
And whatever the solution, we will need immigration because almost 40% of our doctors are migrants and the system would collapse without them.
Unless the myth that immigration is just a problem is tackled, all of the parties will continue to have a Ukip problem for many years to come.
The good news from the European election campaign though is that the British public are receptive to the truth.
And when put under pressure, Ukip panic and crumble. If anyone doubts their fragility, just remember three words: Croydon Ukip carnival.
The real question is whether our politicians look at the actual evidence of the campaign and understand this, or continue to base their responses on hyperbolic headlines that bear only a passing relevance to electoral reality.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut