By John Simm
There was a certain degree of shock after the recent European elections. Joey Barton’s not too tactful sentiments on Question Time summed it up quite adequately. Popular opinion often shifts to the right during recessions with people blaming “others” for their current poor fortunes. They always look back to the past “before those guys showed up” and see things through rose tinted spectacles. But a great deal of UKIP’s current success is due to image and perception rather than merit.
Other politicians have scoffed that UKIP are incoherent, their policies are hilariously simplistic and they don’t vet or control their candidates. This has worked oddly in their favour. Name any unusual prejudice, misguided xenophobia or obscure issue and there will be someone at UKIP who agrees with you. While Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories have many members with few opinions, UKIP’s motley crew frequently contradict each other. Conventional politicians are so conditioned to believe in towing the line that they are convinced this is a weakness. They made the mistake of looking at it through a politician’s eyes. Many people (to generalise) don’t see these things as a problem. The major issues like immigration are the ones that sway voters. Yes many of their policies may be bloated and totally unworkable but they aren’t the ones that grab the most headlines. Farage’s party appeals to people’s tendency to believe in the fallacy that “things were better” in some semi-mythical yesteryear. It’s a powerful notion and one that a lot of people find irresistible.
Nigel Farage actually seems like a real person, he’s unconventional, he’s colourful. He looks like a fish gasping for air, but that’s by the by. He has a knack a la Boris Johnson for using his foibles to make himself appear more human. The point being that he stands out, for both good and bad reasons. Modern politics is shallow and a bit of personality can get you a long way. Think back to Blair’s governments, you had Mandelson, Prescott, Blunkett, Cook and Brown. You may have disliked them but they were famous, well known, charismatic figures (If Robin Cook can manage an affair he must have something about him, even the fascinatingly ugly John Prescott got in on the action). The current government and opposition are full to the brim with soulless, anodyne characters, unlikely to have a different opinion. During the plebgate scandal, Andrew Mitchell argued that he was not an unpleasant elitist but just unpleasant. David Cameron actually had to lie about eating normal food “I had a pasty once, it was very nice”. It is against this backdrop of boring, embarrassing and unconvincing personalities that Farage really stands out. He can speak to the public without looking really uncomfortable, if he said he liked pasties I’d be inclined to believe him. Farage is attempting to take on the role of a sort of everyman for the middle class.
While I don’t agree with a lot of what UKIP say, I’m all for more parties having influence on political life. Obama’s time in power has been blighted by the fact that there are only two parties with any power in America, It stifles the legislative process and allows politicians to get away with ignoring popular opinion and simply trying to thwart each other using negative obstructionist tactics. British politics has started to follow suit (Ed Balls has practically made it his vocation), politicians fall over each other to seem normal as we saw when the cabinet all awkwardly ate steak bakes together in public, “see we do like pasties”. Milliband quickly rushed down there too for some sausage and bean melts in case this swung the next election. There is a balance to be struck, Italy is a prime example of too many cooks spoiling the broth but a bit of choice creates a proper competitive marketplace so to speak. If politicians are too comfortable, they don’t feel they have anything to prove and engage in negative politics.
I do think that UKIP’s popularity is destined to be short term, with a higher profile comes closer scrutiny and I am sceptical that they would stand up to it both politically and personally. You just have to look at the spectacular rise and implosion of the BNP to see what I mean. But I do think that Joey Barton’s sentiments if not his choice of metaphor are right. A lot of people want another option. Over time the other parties will probably erode UKIP support and the 2017 referendum could render their main eurosceptic platform irrelevant. But for now they are the popular alternative. As Tony Diver pointed out in his excellent article, we shouldn’t be worried about them, they are merely a by-product of the public’s current disinterest in other politicians , their profile comes more from their entertainment value than anything else.