In recent weeks, most people I know have been thrown into a funk by Ukip’s apparent invulnerability. Attacking them feels like wrestling smoke or having a dream in which you try to run but your feet turn to lead. Ridicule doesn’t work. Exposing candidates as racists, Islamophobes, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists or crackpots who thinks pro-Europe politicians should be hanged for treason doesn’t work. Perhaps it even enhances their cachet as plucky anti-establishment renegades who say the unsayable, though that’s no reason to stop. They get knocked down. They get back up again. They’re still favourites to win tomorrow’s elections. What can be done?
I think Ukip’s critics should be careful with words. The party is not, despite what many people say, fascist, unless you drastically reinterpret the word to mean “right-wing and nasty”. Its members are not all racists. Some are even non-white (although one of those, former youth leader Sanya-Jeet Thandi, recently quit the party and accused it of appealing to the “stupidity of ignorant anti-immigrant voters for electoral gain” and “giving positions in the party to people with racist views”). People who make hateful generalisations about Eastern Europeans are particularly keen to say they can’t be racist because their targets are white. That’s why Farage can say he wouldn’t want Romanian neighbours and get away with it whereas if he said the same about West Indians he’d be toast.
Again and again, discussions of racism get derailed by a false binary: one is either a racist or not a racist. In reality, one can be racist towards certain groups and not others. One can count people of colour as friends but be instinctively prejudiced towards any who are strangers. One can even consider oneself anti-racist and still make certain subconsciously racist assumptions. The anti-racism movement has succeeded in making people horrified of being accused of racism but not in making them not be racist. We’ve reached a point where anything short of being caught in the act of burning a cross on someone’s lawn can be hotly denied. Many will insist “I don’t have a racist bone in my body”, clearly subscribing to the orthopedic theory of racism. (“Congratulations. The operation was a complete success. We’ve removed the fibula that didn’t want immigrants living next door and now you’re racism-free.”)
I don’t want to go down that road so let me just point out that Ukip supporters are older and whiter than the average voter and disproportionately obsessed with immigration. 92 per cent of them agree that “mass immigration is making parts of the UK unrecognisable and like a foreign land” while 51 per cent agree that “The Government should encourage immigrants and their families to leave Britain (including family members who were born in Britain).” This isn’t just about Brussels. Farage can keep insisting that the only issue is Europe but his anti-immigrant button-pushing makes his pantomime of puzzled disappointment with the party’s barmier members look comically disingenuous. Bigots in Ukip? Gosh, how can that be? He’s like a man who walks around with a string of sausages hanging from his back pocket and then complains when dogs chase him.
The wave of recent mini-scandals may have deterred a few floating voters but it’s left only a minor dent. Some candidates are swivel-eyed extremists? It doesn’t matter. Their facts are distorted and their predictions wrong? It doesn’t matter. They’ve disowned their 2010 manifesto and refuse to specify any policies beyond leaving Europe? It doesn’t matter. They’re so reliant on one man that trying to name another Ukip member who appears reasonable and halfway professional is a very short game? It doesn’t matter. They’re seeking election to a parliament they don’t believe in, which, as we’ve seen from the activities of anti-state Tea Party congressmen in the US, is a recipe for fractious inertia that helps nobody? It doesn’t matter. They’re chummy with some of Europe’s most unsavoury fringe parties? It doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter because Ukip are less a political party than a mood. As the Spectator’s Alex Massie suggests, Farage’s appeal is the flipside of Russell Brand’s. Disgust with mainstream politics, globalisation and, in many cases, immigrants has created an angry bubble so impervious to facts that it strays into conspiracy theories: 67 per cent of Ukip voters said they were more likely than the average Briton to feel “alienated”. Farage obscures his lack of ideas in a mist of simplistic rhetoric and phoney rebellion that’s attractive to people sick of the dreary slog of politics as usual. While the other parties talk about tough choices, Farage makes it easy. Leave Europe, pull up the drawbridge and Britain will be magically restored to whatever cock-eyed, Sunday-night-TV golden age you carry around in your head.
Some of their voters’ deeper worries are understandable, which is why they’re wooing Labour voters as well as estranged Tories, but the solution (send ‘em back home and close the door) is as bogus as it is pernicious. Unfortunately, this is how right-wing populist parties shape the national conversation. First, they exaggerate the downside of immigration and gather a following. Then the media and mainstream parties feel obliged to respond by buying into the exaggeration and catering to “valid concerns”, regardless of whether those concerns are grounded in fact. Usually, voters who are obsessed with immigration decide to stick with the party that serves its bigotry undiluted but by then the issue has been artificially inflated and something must be done. No party leader can dare to say that he refuses to respond to this largely illusory crisis.
The media, always in the market for a telegenic wag, has inflated Farage’s importance and thus his support. The same outlets that wrung their hands over whether to give Nick Griffin a platform have rolled out the red carpet for Farage, even though Ukip deputy chairman Neil Hamilton has said that his party attracts “decent” and “non-racist” BNP voters who feel “swamped” by immigration (ah yes, the famous non-racist BNP voter) and Griffin himself has accused Ukip of “using all of our rhetoric, they are using our slogans, they are recycling our posters and people like it”. Even now that the media is, belatedly, giving Farage a harder time, he has all the publicity he needs.
I’d like to think that the negative press will make some dyspeptic voters tempted to go for Ukip as a protest vote think again once they realise they’re joining some very unpleasant company. Like most countries, Britain has a proportion of incorrigible hardcore racists but not enough to explain Ukip’s poll ratings. Come the general election, when Ukip will have to break their strategic silence on policy and articulate a vision for the economy, education and so on, its coalition of malcontents will be hard to sustain. Truly successful parties are sustained by groundwork, pragmatism and attention to detail, not hot air and hating stuff. Moods are powerful and unstoppable until they pass, and this one will pass.
For now, the only course of action left if you dislike Ukip and the side of Britain that they represent is to turn out and vote. Sorry if that sounds condescending. Angry people with the wind at their heels certainly will, and the bored and disillusioned will allow them to exaggerate their importance. (If Russell Brand’s anti-voting stance seemed unhelpful last year it feels actively destructive now.) You can’t build a lasting political party on anger and prejudice but you can still cause a lot of damage.
Thanks to @davidwearing, whose Twitter feed has been a valuable source of links and statistics.