David Cameron, Ed Miliband and John Prescott have all inspired voters to throw eggs at them, as have John Major, Ruth Kelly, George Galloway and Nick Griffin. Nigel Farage joined their ranks this week; the Ukip leader was hit by an egg while campaigning in Nottingham for the European elections.
Farage, covered in yellow yoke, got back to his car before retreating to a pub. The egg-thrower – Fred from Nottingham – told reporters he had carried out the attack because he did not agree with Ukip policies: “Egg-throwing is a well-established form of political protest in this country. I saw the guys outside the town hall about ten minutes ago. I went to Tesco, bought some eggs.”
Good, you may think, the protester sent Farage on his way, but after the first flush of glee it’s important to ask who benefits from these kind of stunts?
Politicians may hold views with which we disagree but they still should be aired, and protest should not be reduced to chucking about food. In this most recent case, the egg-throwing kept the politician in the news – not necessarily deserved given his party has never won a seat in the House of Commons, while at the same time voters were deprived of a chance to listen to his arguments.
For his supporters, it meant they didn’t hear his ideas fleshed out in full, and it may have added to his martyr and outsider status. For his critics, there was no chance to question him and put him under pressure.
We do a disservice to democracy when we respond in this way to views with which we do not agree. When it comes to opinions that we find unpalatable, we are acting as if we are children. While there are plenty of political meetings taking place at the moment, especially in Scotland about the future of the nation, that are lively, rational and passionate, there are problems with the political culture. The response to Ukip is just one example of this, and it is one with consequences.
Take the response to Farage when he visited Scotland last year.
No doubt it was thoroughly enjoyable to hijack his plans by surrounding him on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and demanding that he “go home to England”, but it’s not quite the level of sophisticated discourse that we should be aiming for.
Again, it kept the politician in the headlines and at the same time voters did not get the chance to hear – and maybe reject – his arguments. Besides, focusing on this one political party could end up letting others off the hook.
Labour’s ban on low-skilled Romanians and Bulgarians, in 2006, for example, helped set an agenda where immigrant communities were presented as a problem.
It is vital that a diversity of political agendas and opinions are discussed, in full, in public. Doing so shines light upon them all. That’s not to say, naively, that doing so dispels hateful opinions – it gives them a chance to thrive, to gain support, and you may lose the argument. But to not have those arguments out means that certain ideas and positions are not aired and not challenged and that they continue to fester.
What is more, if we don’t debate ideas with which we disagree it would mean that we have assumed that our position is so obviously correct that it doesn’t need to be questioned or tested. We need to listen to and explain why we feel certain views that are strongly held are wrong. Doing so can also strengthen our own thinking and it can mean that people who are open to changing their mind may be persuaded to do so.
The only way to deal with concerns and worries about immigrants, the European Union, or the problems with the political class, or anything really, is to address them head on, especially as when it comes to the question of immigration there are many myths that could be punctured. Ideas about immigration are not static. Throughout the 20th century concerns were expressed that there were too many Irish, Jewish, Italian, Indian, Afro-Caribbean and African people coming here.
At the same time, there were those who were prepared to say we can cope with the newcomers and that we all benefit from immigrants. Peoples’ minds were changed, if not for all time. Arguments that were won once have to be remade again.
But we are a long way off from even attempting this. A few years ago there was a campaign to send “a brick or a fridge” to a branch of the Liberal Democrats using their Freepost address, which became such a problem that the party changed its address to one where people had to use a stamp to contact them.
Now, there are plans to achieve a similar result with Ukip. They too provide a Freepost address so people can engage without cost as the service allows a person to send mail without a stamp because the recipient chooses to pay the postage fee. It’s not a bad idea, because it makes it a tiny bit easier for people to correspond with those who want their vote.
Now Ukip opponents are said to be returning flyers using an address they claim is Freepost, while others have chosen to send heavy items, in an attempt to land the party with a large postal bill.
But these are not progressive acts, nor is defacing the political posters – an increasingly common act. It’s all a bit like schoolkids writing swear words on the blackboard.
To dismiss Ukip without a debate is to dismiss the democratic process. It may also encourage them, they are gaining ground in part because the main parties refuse to discuss issues people feel are important.
We need to get out and engage with them, their supporters and each other.
Argue, vote, and place the leaflets where they belong – in the bin, along with the pizza delivery literature, coffee grounds and eggshells.