2014 could be the best year yet for Ukip. The party may even top the poll in the European elections, and it’s all down to people’s liking for sameness, writes John McTernan
What is it about a fag and a pint of beer that makes a man irresistible? Is it the slightly old-fashioned raffishness? The sense of sticking two figures up at political correctness? The anti-authority stance? It’s hard to disentangle, but there’s no doubt that Nigel Farage is the king of the anti-politics politicians at the moment. He hasn’t put a foot wrong all year, and he’s looking forward to doing even better in 2014.
There’s universal consensus among political commentators that Ukip will “win” the European elections by topping the poll in May next year. This is a huge achievement for a party that has relentlessly moved from the margins as a party of protest to supplanting the Liberal Democrats – at least in opinion polls – as the third party of British politics.
Admittedly, the European elections are an oddity. The body to which voters send members is a European parliament so detached from their day-to-day lives as to make national parliaments seem as close and cosy as parish councils. To have a European politics, you need a European polis – a public – but that has stubbornly refused to materialise. Every country will vote in May on local grievances, not grand European visions. Though I suspect they will be united by revulsion against bankers and politicians in equal measure.
Still, a domestic electoral victory is exactly what Farage wants. His party’s very existence is the reflection of a profound political crisis on the right. Simply put, there remains a significant political constituency in Britain of people who do not like the modern world – they want to stop and get off. Listen hard to the voices that Ukip channels. The core objection is not to the European Union – that’s just a useful catch-all label, or more properly symbol. It’s modernity – and all that it brings – that is the problem. And, in a way, they’ve got a point – just not the one they think they’re making.
Immigration is the emblematic problem. Not the black and Asian migration that the racist British National Party attacked, but migration from Europe – mainly central Europe. When Ukip supporters say ‘I’m not racist but…’, they mean it, and they’re right. They’re probably a bit xenophobic, but more importantly they are kainotophobic – they fear change. This is the heart of the Ukip appeal. A vote for them is a blow struck against everything that is wrong with world. Remember The Wild One? When Marlon Brando is asked “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” He replies: ‘Whadda you got?’ Well Farage is like the anti-Brando, saying “Whadda you against? Me too!”
Farage carries it off with flair too with, as I said, a fag in one hand and a pint of beer. It is an artfully constructed picture of an archetypal plain-spoken outsider. But for all that it is a construction. Farage has been a member of the European Parliament for nearly 15 years. It’s harder to be more of an insider than that. The point, of course, is that he is a talented, fluent and plausible politician. Anti-politics is simply the new politics. All that he does is calculated to do one thing – pile pressure on David Cameron.
Here Farage has been greatly assisted by a combination of external force and internal incompetence.
The external force has been the ability of Ed Miliband to spook David Cameron with a populism of the left – an attack on over-profitable energy companies and a game-changing pledge to freeze energy prices. The internal incompetence is the havering of No 10 strategists – unclear how to fight Miliband on the left, Ukip on the right and still command the centre-ground of politics. Yes, it’s as hard as it sounds, but as Harold Wilson used to say: “if you can’t ride two horses at once then you shouldn’t be in the circus.”
The question for Farage is where does he go next? More seats in Europe gives a stronger organisational platform to fight for parliamentary seats at the next UK general election. Constituency MSPs in Holyrood know all too well the threat that a list MSP can be if they leverage all their political resources to target one particular seat. Think how much more true this would be of an MEP focusing on a marginal. This will be a test of Farage’s leadership and authority. For maximum impact he should enforce the pooling of all Ukip MEP support into a central resource and then aim these resources at a handful of seats. It requires ruthlessness at odds with both the public image of Farage, and the sense that Ukip is a boutique operation rather than a campaigning political party.
In the end, is he serious? There is some speculation that Farage’s eventual aim is to come back into the Tory Party. Those who argue this see him as a prophet in the wilderness who has gathered together some of the scattered tribes of Conservatism and can re-unite them with a Tory Party that moved enough to acknowledge his agenda. There is more than a touch of wish fulfilment about this. The current settings, with Ukip splitting the right of centre vote in the UK, almost certainly deliver the keys of No 10 to Ed Miliband.
In effect, this is a rerun of the 1980s, but in reverse, with the Ukip/Tory split mirroring the SDP/Labour one. The lesson of that period, though, is that the Westminster first-past-the-post system strangles insurgent new parties. It is very hard – even with a large vote – to break the grip of the two main political parties. Last century it took Labour 45 years and two world wars to break into the duopoly. But nor can the effect of the 80s be replicated. Spurred by the SDP, Labour moved to the centre and won elections. Moving to combat takes Cameron to the right and further than ever from achieving a majority.
Christmas has seen Farage send a big signal of his intentions. He outflanked the Tories on the left by saying that it is scandalous that the UK, unlike other EU countries, is not intending to take any Syrian refugees. He will have embarrassed many in the Cabinet with this move. While they fear that any perceived weakness on refugees or asylum-seekers will push votes to Ukip, Farage can show himself as the leader of a nice, not a nasty, right-wing party. There has always been a constituency for a proper small state, low tax, libertarian right wing party in the UK. It has just been wrapped up inside a Tory-voting coalition. As party loyalty continues to decline those voters feel less and less bound to make the compromises necessary to support – and therefore sustain – a broad-based centre-right party.
2014 is a big year for Nigel Farage. He and his party will have to grow up in public. What they choose to do, and whether they prosper as a result may have more significance than simply its impact on the next General Election. David Cameron’s unfinished modernisation of the Conservative Party may be completed not inside but outside his party. And the realignment of British politics predicted by David Owen may be concluded in a way he never expected.