Published on March 6th, 2014 |
by Eleanor Newis
Image © www.mirror.co.uk
The Strange Phenomenon Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage played a blinder this week. In response to criticism from Nick Clegg that he has a record of only 50% participation in European elections, Farage responded that he was surprised the Lib Dem leader had chosen that line of attack, as he happened to know that Clegg himself actually has a 22% voting record in the UK parliament. This makes for an interesting run-up to the debates we’ll soon be seeing between Farage and Clegg: the pair will go head to head in a debate hosted by David Dimbleby on Wednesday 2 April, according to BBC’s Nick Robinson, and the week before LBC will be hosting a radio debate. Nigel has come a long way in the last few years, from trying (and failing) to explain how his name is pronounced, to putting down deputy prime ministers – even if they are Nick Clegg. So, how exactly does Farage, and the party he leads, fit into the pre-2015 picture?
Now, UKIP have always made me laugh. Not that I find right-wing casual racism amusing. But what I do find amusing is a party campaigning for seats in the European parliament on the basis that they think it should not exist. I do wonder what exactly would happen to all of the very comfortably salaried UKIP MEPs if their dreams actually, shock horror, came true. However, despite this incongruity, the British electorate seem to be getting rather swept up in all the almost-Thatcherite-but-not-quite economics and the bumbling patriotism of it all. And this isn’t an overnight phenomenon: as the Lib Dems did in the 1980s and 1990s, UKIP has focused on local areas and councillors, developing support. Now, because of this groundwork, they are far better founded and organised. Not to the point where they can break into Westminster, but to the point where they can certainly give the three main parties a scare: in the Eastleigh by-election, 2013, they came within 2, 000 votes of victory.
So, Farage has managed to take his party from the realm of in the words of our glorious leader David “fruitcakes and loonies” to being a genuinely viable political force. But, as one very astute comment on The Guardian website (by a gentleman/ lady called “get out of my dreams” I hope so much this isn’t a pseudonym) puts it, “Farage is only dangerous when he has someone to lash out at.” Right now, that someone is Clegg. He can’t go for Cameron because there wouldn’t be much disagreement: the Euro-sceptic faction of the Tory party would actually be UKIP members, but for the fact they want to be in government. And he can’t pick Miliband, as Labour is still being rather vague on Europe along with many other things. One thing that can be said for Miliband’s rather airy-fairy approach to communicating his policies is that Farage can’t throw anti-Europe economics at him via The Daily Mail. But anyway, Farage. He has his target, and he can do damage. UKIP aren’t just a Europe-hating grass roots movement anymore: they are a Europe-hating British electorate mobilising movement.
Some think that the recent swell in UKIP support comes from the failure of the Tories to deliver on cornerstone issues: immigration, the EU, whilst others think it is a wider problem going back decades: a dividing of society and a fracturing of the class system that has resulted in a number of “left behind voters”. Personally, I think it is both of these factors and a few more. The party put a hell of a lot of effort to be where they are now. And Farage, however much his name will always strike me as sounding more like a type of French cheese than a politician, is major part of this trajectory. And it is a trajectory all too likely to continue. UKIP’s appeal is not catch-all; their issues speak to some, and are utterly foreign (ironically) to others. They have virtually no appeal to middle- age, comfortably well-off voters who have nice jobs in the city and drive one of their two cars to go to the gym three times a week. Unless these voters are unusually revenge-prone Tories. No, UKIP’s appeal is with those voters who are being “left behind” (whether this is the original reason for their success or not), and these are also the people being most adversely affected by the current coalition’s policies.
So, Nick Clegg better watch out for the Europe-slaying rhetoric coming his way. But the Tories and Labour better watch out as well. UKIP has been biding their time. They are not an overnight phenomenon; they don’t even look quite as silly as they did a few years ago. Voters struggling to pay the rent, struggling to get jobs, struggling to make ends meet will be looking for two things, a scapegoat, and a political alternative. UKIP is the ultimate by-one-get-one-free deal: a political party that comes with a ready-made scapegoat in the form of Europe and immigration. The economics of UKIP’s argument (which are bonkers, in case you were wondering) don’t matter. What matters is that it will sell, big time. So, the main parties should watch their step. They need to come up with ideas on Europe and immigration that not only make rational, economic sense, but which also sound better than Farage’s rather mental (in my humble opinion) but very simple and attractive argument. Farage has been waiting a long time, and he won’t want to wait much longer.
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