It is former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson who is credited with the claim that “a week is a long time in politics”; and if any week justifies the statement, then the past seven days in the United Kingdom surely does. For the first time in living memory, the popular vote in a national election was won by a party other than Labour or the Conservatives. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has claimed that his party’s success in the European election is the equivalent to an earthquake under the feet of the ‘political establishment’, and (in typically flamboyant and colourful style) that he has “put the UKIP fox in the Westminster hen-house”. Much has been written about the reasons for UKIP’s success; and much ink has been spilled in seeking to analyse how a party that has done very little to spell out what its policies are, or what it stands for beyond taking the UK out of the European Union, was able to increase its share of the popular vote by 11%. And this despite a catalogue of blunders and embarrassing revelations concerning candidates and party supporters, who were by turn revealed to be racist, homophobic, and misogynist. In fact, by the end of the campaign, it seemed that whatever fresh mishap or error of judgement was committed, the impact was simply to reinforce the image of UKIP as the party of the ordinary person in the street, telling it like it is, without feeling the need to self-edit or pander to the perceived sensitivities of minorities of whatever variety. The party’s popularity strengthened rather than weakened; and Farage proved himself to be remarkably politically adept at deflecting attention away from himself and his party and onto the ‘political elite’ that was enveloped in the ‘Westminster bubble’ and was totally out of touch with the British people.
The immediate response of the Labour and Conservative parties to UKIP’s success was to seek to portray it as a ‘flash in the pan’ – a protest vote that was a reflection of people’s disillusionment with the established political parties, and something that was entirely predictable given the austerity of recent years, and the fragility of the recovery. Ken Clarke and Tony Blair were quick to take this approach in radio and newspaper interviews in the days immediately following the election results announcement (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2640377/We-not-bothered-migration-Blair-criticised-complaining-voters-elected-Ukip-MEPs.html). Interestingly, and in contrast, Ed Miliband and David Cameron have each sought to align themselves with those who have expressed concerns over immigration and benefits tourism (despite the lack of any real evidence that either ‘problem’ is real or serious), whilst stopping short of endorsing the sorts of restrictions on entry to the UK and any commitment to an ‘in-out’ referendum on EU membership that were central to the UKIP campaign. Ironically, this has left them looking exactly like the half-baked apologists for multi-culturalism and political correctness that is claimed by Farage and co. as the central problem with mainstream politics in the UK today.
Other commentators have looked more widely at the impact of the election results and the lessons that all politicians need to take on board if they are to re-engage with the electorate in the future. Among these analyses, Suzanne Moore’s stands out as coming closest to defining the root causes of the problems currently facing the mainstream political parties (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/28/twelve-ways-to-fix-politics-suzanne-moore). In essence, politics and politicians have become so professionalised, so rehearsed, so controlled, that they have ceased to be “of, for, or relating to citizens” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics). Conviction politicians are now seen as characters, and for a news media desperate for an angle to report that breaks away from the carefully controlled spin of central offices, they are a godsend. This, at least in part, explains the relatively benign treatment of Farage and co. from all sections of the print and broadcast press in the run up to the European elections. Moore makes the point brilliantly when she writes that : “[Politicians] are sucked into a system in which [their] beliefs are so compromised, they become unintelligible to much of the electorate, who would be hard-pressed to say what their MP actually stands for. Anyone who appears to believe something or “be real” stands out. This is now called “character”, as if having a set of… views is actually a sign of amazing individualism”.
It would be easy therefore, to dismiss the UKIP victory as a temporary aberration – the sort of result that is to be expected from a relatively unimportant election (MEPs have little significant impact on European Union policy or practice) at a time when dissatisfaction with the economy generally, and politicians in particular, is at high levels, and when turnout is in any event relatively low (c.35%). However, another news stories this week suggest that writing off the UKIP result too early might be a major mistake.
The results of the British Social Attitudes Survey published on Wednesday were reported as highlighting an increase in the percentage of people who describe themselves as racially prejudiced (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/racism-on-the-rise-in-uk-with-1-in-3-people-admitting-prejudice-9443555.html). The figure in 2013 increased to c.30% in comparison to 25% in 2001. Whilst commentators have been quick to point out that the reporting of the survey has erred on the side of senationalism (http://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2014/may/29/racist-racism-study-uk), there must still be some cause for concern that the widespread coverage of immigration (and the ill-informed and misleading reporting of hordes of benefits scroungers, thieves, and worse, flooding into the country through porous borders – see all news media almost daily for the past six months) has made it almost socially acceptable to hold prejudicial attitudes in the UK today. By appearing to empathise with those who find it easiest to blame immigrants for everything that is wrong in our society, Miliband and Cameron simply condone that behaviour.
As the parties begin to gear up for the General Election campaign in 2015, they might do well to reflect on Suzanne Moore’s advice to focus on what they really believe in and to stop being so mealy-mouthed in their condemnation of the xenophobia and blaming of ‘the other’, that is the central plank of UKIP’s appeal. There is plenty of evidence to support the fact that immigration is not the root cause of the social and economic problems that continue to challenge the UK (http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jan/14/immigration-beneficial-uk-economy-treasury-independent-advisers); and (even allowing for increases in the last decade), the proportion of foreign-born nationals in areas outside London and and South East of England is still typically very low (http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/sites/files/migobs/Migrants%20in%20the%20UK-Overview_1.pdf). It is not even true (despite widely reported claims to the contrary) that you are more likely to be a victim of a crime committed by a Rumanian than by someone from any other nationality (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/04/09/immigration-crime-figures_n_5117041.html).
Now is the time to start making these arguments clearly and unequivocally.