Why the political class is so scared of Farage
In the electoral successes of UKIP, Britain’s political elite glimpses its own creeping irrelevance and out-of-touchness.
The UK Independence Party did well in last week’s local elections, picking up 23 per cent of the vote and 147 council seats. It certainly did better than the flailing Liberal Democrat Party which, with only 13 per cent of the vote, lost 124 seats, leaving it with just 352 seats in total.
Still, UKIP did not do as well as the Labour Party, which added 291 seats to its existing 247, on 29 per cent of the vote. And although the Conservative Party lost 335 seats, on 26 per cent of the vote, it still holds 1,116 seats in total. So, although UKIP did well, its success – it holds only the 147 seats it won on Thursday in total – needs to be put into a bit of perspective.
Since the results came in at the end of last week, however, perspective has been singularly lacking. In fact, given the hysterical response among the political and media class to UKIP’s success, you could be forgiven for thinking UKIP had actually come out on top, not third to the UK’s two struggling main parties. Rarely has an electoral success prompted such agonising. UKIP, remember, is a party with fewer actual MPs than either the Green Party or the latest George Galloway Party (they both have one each). Yet while editorials have wrung their papers’ hands, tied as they are by party-political allegiance, and commentators have tried to make sense of just what has gone wrong and rightwards, it’s the party-political establishment which seems most traumatised.
Chief among the trauma victims are the Tories who, having spent the best part of a decade desperately dismissing UKIP as fruitcakes, closet racists and clowns, are now virtually deferring to what appears to be UKIP’s awesome force. Several leading Conservative figures came out over the weekend urging prime minister David Cameron to steal UKIP’s anti-EU thunder by staging an in-out referendum before and not after the next General Election. And Cameron himself, once mocker-in-chief of UKIP, is now calling for respect for the party’s electoral achievements.
Labour, too, seems introspective rather than triumphant following the election results. In the Daily Telegraph, one commentator called on Labour ‘to define itself as a responsible alternative to both Cameron and [UKIP leader Nigel] Farage for those seeking substantial change’. Another Labour supporter urged the party’s spectacularly underwhelming leader Ed Miliband to challenge the ‘UKIP surge’. (A painful image, given how difficult it is to imagine Ed Miliband challenging anything.)
This disparity between the fairly impressive UKIP election results and the massively depressive reaction among the political class does not really tell us that much about UKIP’s electoral performance itself. It testifies, rather, to the political class’s current sense of fragility. UKIP really didn’t have to do much to prompt angst and anger in Westminster; the UK political class’s own insecurity rendered it all too eager to turn this mid-term electoral drama into a long-term crisis, and, with it, to turn UKIP and its leader Farage into a threatening political force.
The roots of this insecurity are not hard to fathom. Isolated and deracinated, today’s main political parties are terrified of one thing in particular: the people, and those whom they support. To the modern Tory and Labour parties, popularity, grounded as they see it in the ‘prejudices’ of the people, is to be feared, not embraced. Hence in the shape of UKIP, they don’t see democracy, but demagoguery. There’s little doubt that UKIP, and in particular its leader Nigel Farage, do resonate in a way that the established parties do not. Where the main parties seek mainly to dodge and attribute blame for problems, UKIP are willing to offer up solutions. Where Cameron or Miliband talk unconvincingly in PR-conscious platitudes, Farage is always keen to speak his mind. To the political establishment, UKIP embodies popular sentiment. And that is why, in Farage’s words, UKIP’s election results have sent a ‘shockwave’ through the political establishment.
Given the political elite’s fear that the UKIP vote represents something dangerously popular, it is not surprising that there has been a tendency willfully to underestimate the intellectual capacities of UKIP voters. Their reasons for voting UKIP are deemed to be a little irrational. They are not voting for UKIP, so the argument runs, because they support the party’s policies, or agree with what Farage has to say on the economy and the EU. No, they are voting for UKIP because of something more emotional, more impulsive. As one achingly left-wing commentator put it in the Mirror, ‘People’s anger and fear are growing. For many, voting for UKIP was an act of despair.’ This tendency to pathologise the UKIP vote, to present it as an unreasoned emotional reflex, is more than a little patronising. No doubt many did vote UKIP without studying the minutiae of its policies (which is true of all parties’ support), but to suggest that many didn’t really know what they were voting for, that UKIP was just channelling unreasoned discontent, misses the point.
Because alongside the tendency to underestimate the mental capacities of UKIP voters, there was a yet more striking underestimation of the actual reason why a significant number of people voted for UKIP in particular. That is, it was not, as Tory stalwart Michael Heseltine put it, a simple protest vote; it was not a rejection of this or that party, of this or that leader. No, the vote for UKIP signalled something more profound; the public’s general rejection of the political class, and the political-class outlook, as a whole. This was a vote against the immigration-rigging cosmopolitanism of the political elite, its cross-party embrace of European institutions, and its seeming opposition to the people. One recent survey of UKIP supporters revealed as much: ‘A fifth (18 per cent) saw [the European Union] as among the most important issues facing Britain in 2012, with the economy, race relations and immigration, unemployment and crime all rated as more important than the EU. However, the one-in-five UKIP supporters naming the European Union is much higher than the six per cent of the general public overall.’
Be it a rejection of the UK’s race-relations industry, or its EU love-in, a particular hostility to the elite consensus has taken form in Farage and his party. So while the insecurity of our isolated political class turned UKIP into the story of the local election results, in other ways they are right to be concerned. Not by UKIP itself, which would no doubt happily be co-opted into the Westminster village, but by the deep-seated and increasingly popular rejection embodied by UKIP of everything the political class stands for.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.