Cranking up the cranks
Pre-election paranoia is allowing fringe parties to make the front pages.
The build-up to the local, European and London elections on 10 June is unlikely to send voters rushing to the polls.
An advert for the European Parliament elections shows clips of people running around and a baby breastfeeding, with the slogan ‘you’ve been voting since you were born: don’t stop now’ – as if voting was akin to a baby’s choice between the left breast and the right breast. Labour keeps harping on about Tory leader Michael Howard’s role bringing in the poll tax in the late 1980s, while the Tories dash from one issue to the next, even inviting voters to write their party election broadcast (see Shadowboxing with the past, by Josie Appleton). And the fiasco of the late postal ballots creates a general air of chaos around the event, making participation even more complicated.
This is a climate in which cranky fringe parties can make the front pages. The British National Party (BNP) has been the centre of attention, with the press and politicians warning about possible gains. In the contest for London mayor, candidates pleaded with the public to vote in order to keep the BNP out, with Liberal Democrat candidate Simon Hughes saying that ‘voters from all communities in London must send a message to the BNP that they are not welcome in the capital’ (1).
A poll for the Daily Telegraph has put the spotlight on the UK Independence Party (UKIP). In this YouGov survey, the UKIP came in as the third biggest party among the 39 per cent of people who are likely to vote in the European elections – the UKIP polled 18 per cent, compared to the Liberal Democrats’ 15 per cent, the Tories’ 31 per cent and Labour’s 23 per cent (2). The UKIP has also recently been bolstered by celebrity support from Robert Kilroy-Silk and Joan Collins, and the comment pages over the weekend were full of speculation about the party’s rising fortunes.
A single poll for a right-wing newspaper is hardly an indicator of popular support. The UKIP is really a tin-pot organisation that has yet to prove itself in the polls. Why do these kinds of fringe groups make the front pages?
The UKIP was formed in 1993 by members of the Anti-Federalist League (an anti-Maastricht Treaty organisation headed by LSE historian Dr Alan Sked). The party advocates withdrawal from the European Union (EU), and opposes all intrusions on ‘British liberty’ – among which it counts immigrants. It is a small organisation, and surprised everybody by winning three seats in the European Parliament at the last elections. The ‘Who’s who’ on the party’s website includes only five people: the three MEPs, party leader Roger Knapman and party chairman David Lott (3).
The website reads as if it was put together in somebody’s sitting room. Exclamation marks are everywhere (‘[The EU is] a far cry from the trading community the British thought they were joining in 1975!…. In other words, we joined the wrong club!’). In their biographies, we learn that Nigel Farage MEP is a ‘3- handicap golfer’, and that Graham Booth’s wife, Pamela, ‘is very supportive of his work for UKIP’.
It is perhaps just this crankiness that appeals to the press. Because it comes from the fringes, the UKIP is able to feed off a growing disillusionment with the mainstream parties, presenting itself as a bit different and not ‘one of them’.
This is more about an attitude than a set of policies or a political agenda. The UKIP’s selling point is the anger it directs at all those corrupt political elites who have apparently tricked us and sold us down the river. The party’s manifesto says that the British people voted for the Common Market in ‘good faith’, but the EU turned out to be ‘one of the largest confidence tricks in human history’. ‘The other parties are not telling us the truth about the EU.’ The party’s opposition to immigration comes across as a foot-stamping ‘we’ve had enough!’: ‘The UK is already full up. We are bursting at the seams.’
The Respect coalition, headed by former Labour MP George Galloway, is a leftist fringe party that was formed in January 2004. The party came out of anti-war demonstrations in London, which marched behind the slogans of ‘not in my name’ and ‘Bliar’ – slogans that expressed individuals’ rejection of corrupt political elites rather than any positive statement. While Respect is largely made up of the far left, it promotes itself by appealing to these anti-political sentiments. For example, it plays into the cynicism about politicians and politics in general by attacking prime minister Tony Blair’s ‘lying and hypocrisy’ over Iraq. The Socialist Workers Party has made it on to the national map by reducing itself to the radical wing of the anti-politics party.
In the past, forming a new political party would have meant building popular support around a political programme. Today it seems to be more akin to an advertising campaign. What you see are small groups of individuals gathering together around an issue, and gearing their message towards the media. While having only a handful of core supporters and few worked-through policies, these fringe parties can go from nothing to the centre of attention almost overnight.
If these parties do win real support, this is likely to be the result of other parties’ weaknesses rather than their own strengths. A vote for Respect or the UKIP is more a protest vote against the Labour Party, or rejection of the Tories, than it is a commitment to a new set of policies or a new kind of politics. It was telling that a Conservative councillor who defected to the UKIP had little to say about the virtues of his new party. Instead he complained: ‘I can no longer accept my country being sold down the river. And the Conservative Party’s policy is all over the place: it no longer knows whether it is coming or going.’ (4)
Traditional parties’ attacks on these fringe groups can only boost their standing. Every time the mainstream parties bandy round to attack the BNP this wins it more attention; without such media headlines it is likely that the BNP would sink back into the ignominy it deserves. The Tory and Labour parties’ attempts to expose the UKIP as political charlatans will have a similar effect – Michael Howard denounced UKIP members as ‘cranks and political gadflies’, while Labour MEP Peter Skinner branded them ‘a bunch of yobbos’. Yet the fact that the UKIP is non-traditional and cranky is arguably its main selling point – to have sixtysomething Michael Howard pointing this out is perhaps the best that the party could hope for.
Disillusionment with mainstream politics is fuelling the hyping up of fringe parties. Instead of representing new political ideas or directions, however, these are little more than loose groups of individuals who express cynicism and mistrust about politics in general. Their profile owes much to the paranoid attacks launched on them by mainstream parties that are fearful of losing touch with voters. They make their name more by sparking media comment than by engaging in public debate. This makes for fringe parties that can be nothing yesterday, and on the front pages, or even in the European Parliament, today – and, more than likely, gone tomorrow.
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