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Saturday, 4 May 2013

How do you solve a problem like UKIP?

Yesterday was certainly a very good day for Nigel Farage’s party (or, as a prefers to call it, an outfit).

The rather surprising success of UKIP sends out some clear messages and constitutes a challenge that other political parties now must respond to. It isn’t just the three major parties either – the likes of the Green Party and various other “smaller” parties who have tended to be overlooked must also recognise the apparent rise of UKIP as a problem and make the case for an “alternative alternative” in this new political world. Farage’s party seem to have convinced the media and sizeable sections of the public that they alone pose a serious threat to the establishment parties and consequently have virtually cornered the “protest” or “none of the above” markets.  Certainly, as minor parties found themselves squeezed (or, worse, ignored) with the rise in the UKIP vote it is apparent that UKIP’s surge in popularity may have a similar effect on the representation of smaller parties in local government than the SNP’s successes in 2007 had in Holyrood.

True, the Greens did make five gains in the local elections but have fallen well behind UKIP as a potential repository for the votes of those disenchanted with mainstream politics.  The Liberal Party and Mebyon Kernow also gained a seat each but otherwise the results made pretty grim reading for the broad array of minor parties hoping to capitalise on the perceived unpopularity of the three-party system.

Of course UKIP’s surge in popularity has implications for the party system as well as the parties themselves – and not least British democracy.  Is also poses questions for the Liberal Democrats.  Are we happy to relinquish our identity as a “none-of-the above” protest party in exchange for Clegg’s “responsible party of government” label?  How do we respond when UKIP replace us in the public consciousness as the straight-talking party who can be trusted to stand up for people and communities?  How do we challenge both UKIP’s popular appeal and their ideology?  And, most importantly, where do we go from here?

The Liberal Democrats

For all the positive spin some Liberal Democrats have put on yesterday’s results (and I agree there are some positivesthat we should not lose sight of) the results themselves have to represent a disappointment. Losing over a quarter (26.1%) of our county councillors is an almost unknown experience for us and it provides little comfort that the Conservatives also fared reasonably poorly, down 23.1% on a spectacularly good 2009 performance.  A Labour resurgence was to be expected but the 147 UKIP councillors (up from 8 in 2009) has to come as something of a surprise and has some serious implications.  While it’s always difficult to take heavy political defeats, at least the Holyrood elections of 2011 resulted in support transferring itself to an SNP that had many broadly progressive policies and similar social perspectives. On this occasion, the chief beneficiary is a party as diametrically opposed to our values as Brian Souter is to equality. 

Before considering more of what UKIP’s rise means, I will consider the Liberal Democrat position.  Firstly, the South Shields by-election constitutes yet another electoral disaster for us. Admittedly this is the kind of seat where a sea-lion wearing a red rosette would be elected but to finish not only behind UKIP but also the BNP, an Independent and a Socialist is embarrassing for any party of government. Even in non-fertile territory, to poll only 155 votes more than the Monster Raving Loony Party is not something to be proud of – or dismissed. 

This is the latest of a series of poor by-election performances and it’s difficult to single out any particular one as of more significance than another.  What it does tell us is that the role we’d carved out for ourselves as by-election specialists has been consigned to history and further demonstrates how much that previous success owed little to our own policies and ideology and much to our identity as an “alternative” to Labour and the Conservatives. Defining ourselves, or allowing ourselves to be defined, by who we were not rather than who we were might have secured short-term success but is now proving to be an integral part of our current difficulties.

Not wishing to dwell on South Shields, more can be determined from the overall picture of the English local election results.  They are not disastrous and a sense of perspective is needed. But that sense of perspective must look beyond where we did well and recognise how much our stock has fallen in the country as a whole. The "great liberal movement of ours" runs a very significant risk of once again becoming a party of a fringe – perhaps not a Celtic one, but one consisting of constituencies in which we have incumbents and where generally our closest opponents are the Conservatives.  The lesson from all recent local elections is that we do well when fighting the Tories directly – a suggestion that our identity as non-Tory combined with incumbency continues to pay dividends.  This week, we performed exceptionally well in Westmorland & Lonsdale, Eastbourne, Colchester, North Cornwall and Cheltenham. There's an obvious connection between those areas that should surprise no-one.

Lib Dem Voice proudly declares that in constituencies where there are incumbent Lib Dem MPs the collective popular vote was as follows:  Lib Dem 30%, Con 27%, UKIP 17%, Lab 15%. That is somewhat reassuring. However, it also shows the degree to which our support has become concentrated in key areas and our campaigning energies focused on key “fortresses”.  There are dangers with this.  If we are to become a genuinely national movement (and I see liberalism as a movement) can we afford to become a party merely of a few strongholds, with continued success in those areas the product of the very electoral system we so despise?

Is it good for Liberal Democracy that our appeal should be limited to Farron’s fiefdom, Alistair’s archduchy, Nick’s neighbourhood, Vince’s viscounty or Bob’s barony?  The answer surely has to be “no”. While ultimately incumbency is always a key weapon the message is that outwith these areas we are faring quite poorly.  The Lib Dem mantra “where we work, we win” is more than a little dishonest and of course overlooks the fact that we often work hard in losing campaigns: the truth is we do well in areas where we are established and have active local parties.  The liberal renaissance I often speak of requires grassroots development and revitalisation outwith these areas; any movement that is dependent on incumbency and support concentrated in a few regions is not movement at all.  Certainly a party opposed to top-down organisation does not wish to be in the position that its fortunes to tied so completely to those of its elected parliamentarians.

John Curtice observed that “the Lib Dems are not losing a barrow-load of seats despite their heavy loss of votes because most of the seats they are defending are against a Conservative challenger and the Conservative vote is also dropping heavily. Thus the Lib Dems are hanging on to seats while losing votes." This confirms what I have been saying for some time and highlights the danger of our electoral successes being inextricably connected to the Conservatives’ public standing.

Susan Kramer yesterday suggested that the key to a change in the Liberal Democrats’ fortunes will be economic recovery. She said: "We've obviously been hurt by being in government. Until the economy turns, that will continue to be true." She’s being both wildly optimistic and misunderstanding the problem, in true Clegg style buying into the myth that the public will eventually reward us when they finally realise how much we’ve been doing in government and have turned the country’s economic fortunes around.  In response to this it’s fair to point out that the economic situation isn’t the principal reason why we’ve fallen out of favour with voters and, more pertinently, that there are huge risks with pinning all our hopes on our recovery – especially one which is dependent on George Osborne’s plans bearing fruit.

Paddy Ashdown, also commenting on the results had this to say: “It's not the end; it's not the beginning of the end. But it might be the end of the beginning of the fight back.” That says more about Ashdown than it does the party, although I have no doubts they will be sentiments that inspire and encourage many of us.  The question is: how do we fight back? The methodology on which we have become so dependent is in many respects dated and redundant.  We also must now be very much aware of a new political reality: any fightback will require the party to address the challenge of UKIP. They are undoubtedly an impediment to our party’s progress and present both an electoral and ideological threat to liberalism.

Addressing the UKIP threat.

This brings us to the real question: how exactly is that challenge to be addressed? 

To answer this adequately it is necessary to understand the nature of UKIP and the reasons behind the increase in support.  Labour’s John Reid claims that UKIP's success has echoes of the SDP’s success in the early 1980s but that this time "the big split is on the right", principally affecting the Conservatives. This is a common error to make.  Firstly, Reid forgets that the SDP were infinitely more successful – and more popular – than UKIP, at times reaching in excess of 50% in opinion polls. They even knew how to win by-elections.  It’s also erroneous to believe that UKIP simply take votes from the Conservatives. Evidence produced only yesterday suggests that Labour actually are even bigger losers to UKIP’s surge than the Tories and their appeal goes beyond that of right-wing Tory types. John Curtice explained that "there is little evidence to support the presumption that UKIP are doing substantially better in areas of Conservative strength."

However much the likes of Peter Bone and Nadine Dorries insist that UKIP’s rise is the product of the Prime Minister’s unadventurous policy direction, they actually miss the point – as does Norman Tebbit when he calls for David Cameron to adopt “some” of UKIP’s policies. Unquestionably, it suits some Tory MPs’ agendas to portray increase in UKIP vote as appeal to mainstream Conservatism. It is, however, nothing of the sort although the predictable leadership speculation that followed yesterday’s results begs question of how many Tories are voting UKIP to wilfully undermine the Prime Minister.   While UKIP are clearly a party of the right, they also appeal to many who would never think of voting Conservative.  Their effectiveness is based on a dangerous populism, the intellectual basis of which must be addressed – not the failure of the Conservative Party to conform to the whims of its most unsavoury of backbenchers.

A beneficiary of public discontent

UKIP have so far not “broken the mould” or even threatened to.  But they are changing the political conversation in such a way that should be very worrying.  This is far more depressing than either the decline of Lib Dem support or the surge in UKIP’s vote. After all, surges in the past have not necessarily been symptomatic of longer-term trends: the SDP phenomenon fell victim to an unfair electoral system, the Greens’ success securing 15% of the vote in the 1989 European elections was not followed by any further notable electoral progress, opinion polls showing that large percentages of the population would be inclined to vote for either the BNP or Scottish Voice have since been entirely forgotten and Cleggmania proved to be equally temporary.  What each of these have in common, however, is that they were to varying degrees the product of public discontent with the political status quo. Economic recessions tend to breed support for parties that would not generally poll well in times of greater stability and a combination of an unpopular government and a toothless and unimaginative opposition inevitably leads people to look elsewhere.  As Harriet Harman suggested, “people weren't saying we want Nigel Farage running NHS - they're saying we feel disconnected, fearful about living standards - and we hear that and we don't have to continue with the economy bumping along the bottom.”

When looking for “alternatives” the public generally and understandably go for the option that appears best positioned to destablise or threaten the mainstream parties. There was a time when that party was the Liberal Democrats; what we believed politically was relatively insignificant if we were best positioned to take a seat from an unpopular incumbent party.  In England this role of chief opposition to the establishment has passed to Nigel Farage, who cuts a rather unlikely anti-establishment figure. 

For all his talk of these election results bring “a game-changer”, Farage actually understands perfectly well that mid-term elections, whether national or local, throw up unusual results. In 2009 Labour suffered a drubbing in both local and national elections with the BNP winning two European seats. The Lib Dems used to win the most unlikely of by-elections in mid-term.  In 1981 Labour took majority control of Cumbria, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Northumberland, and Nottinghamshire (i.e. a better performance than Labour’s this week) and still were roundly threshed in the 1983 General Election. It is wrong to draw too much significance from these results, even if they do suggest some kind of permanence to UKIP’s popularity, and media experts are wrong to do so (such as Vernon Bogdanor, who yesterday suggested that UKIP’s gaining of 135 councillors means that we might see legislation on an EU referendum in next week's Queen's Speech). The fact remains that UKIP is first and foremost a single-issue protest party, with a raison d’etre of removing the UK from the EU. Unlike some other protest parties before them (Health Concern, Senior Citizens’ Unity Party) they have yet to win a parliamentary seat for either Westminster or the devolved parliaments. The self-declared “third force” in UK politics lacks even the equivalent domestic parliamentary representation of the Green Party. 

The nature of UKIP

The fundamental nature of UKIP is as a branch of the anti-establishment, anti-politics movement. But that is not the entire picture because there is something a little different about UKIP.  Tebbit is wrong: UKIP are not a slightly maverick expression of mainstream conservatism. They are a manifestation of a much more reactionary, intolerant and populist form of right-wing politics that must be confronted rather than embraced. 

Vince Cable is more accurate when he compares UKIP’s performance to the winners of the recent Italian election where a new party emerged from nowhere, "not standing for anything much, with a sense of humour".  It is true that Farage’s charisma and affability is an electoral asset that has helped a public-school educated individual who frequents lap-dancing clubs, whose political hero is Enoch Powell and who gleefully admits to taking “£2m of taxpayers' money in expenses and allowances in his 10 years as an MEP” to present himself as a man of the people.  But while the scale of UKIP’s success in terms of the popular vote is surprising it certainly isn’t true that this has come from “nowhere” – the party secured 16% of the vote in the 2004 European elections.  Neither is it true that they stand for very little, even if they are largely defined by the single issue of European withdrawal.

Part of UKIP’s popularity lies in their being perceived as a party that, according to Nick Pearce of IPPR, “best stands up for English interests”.  In a very real sense this national sentiment underpins who and what UKIP is as much as their position on the EU.  The conscious cultivating of their image as a “patriotic” party is both clever and of particular concern to Tories.  UKIP’s notion of Britishness, or more correctly Englishness, seems to be rooted in the same ignorance of the realities history and contemporary international relations that characterised the BNP’s narrow-minded perspectives.  At the heart of UKIP’s call to abandon the EU lies not concern for democracy but a backward-looking nationalism. 

In fact, UKIP does not value democracy.  Certainly, it does not value the referenda it ostensibly promotes. A referendum is only supported by UKIP because it believes it is the sole means through which it can achieve its objectives. It does not seem to concern itself with respecting the outcomes of referenda from recent history: in 2011 UKIP’s Scottish manifesto pledged to “replace MSPs with Scottish Westminster MPs” and, in Wales, “remove the Assembly Members, who are overpaid and underemployed” again replacing them with Westminster MPs who will sit in the building for a few days per month as some kind of regional talking-shop.  This is not only a confused approach to devolution, it quite brazenly reverses the decisions made by the Scottish and Welsh electorates to have their own parliament and assembly. 

The populism of UKIP also, unlike the Greens and the SDP of the 1980s, appears to have very little appeal to educated people.  Indeed, one of the most worrying aspects of UKIP’s rise has been the descent into political anti-intellectualism – The Independent’s James Bloodworth described UKIP as “the triumph of emotion over logic”.  Nick Robinson pointed out that “a recent opinion poll suggested five times as many UKIP voters distrusted the MMR jab compared with other voters. They don't trust what the ‘men in suits’ tell them.” This neat summary is also confirmed by Professor John Curtice who commented that UKIP tends to perform well “in areas with relatively few graduates”. Furthermore, UKIP does better “in places with a relatively high level of people who claim a religious identity”. This is entirely to be expected from a party that has made social conservatism on issues ranging from gay marriage to immigration a fundamental part of its policy platform.

UKIP considers itself to be a “serious party”.  It takes more than opinion polls and local election results to convince me of that. Parties that talk about sending young offenders to boot camps, who oppose same-sex marriage (supposedly on the mistaken belief that churches would be forced to perform marriages), who are opposed to multi-culturalism, whose candidates describe gay adoption as “child abuse”, who advocate a near-permanent war economy with defence spending in excess of 40%, who deny climate change, who plan to abolish renewable energy subsidies, who are opposed to the European Convention on Human Rights, who advocate doubling prison spaces as the most effective means of tackling crime, who have become vehicles for xenophobia and who has been successfully sued for sexual discrimination by one of their former MEPs are certainly not to be taken seriously – at least as a socially responsible “alternative”.

Anti-secularism

Curtice’s observation on the popularity of UKIP among those with a strong religious identity is telling.  What Curtice does not do is follow his remarks through to their logical conclusion. However, Derek McLellan, from Secular Scotland, does: he asks “with the success of UKIP are we witnessing the rise of the Christian right as a political force?”  It is a highly pertinent question and I think McLellan correctly identifies that UKIP not only constitute a threat to the established political parties but also to our secular democracy.  Not only does Farage describe equal marriage as “an equality too far”, he has also waded into the debate on wearing religious icons in the workplace by intemperately declaring that “it appears that this Government wishes to drive Christianity from public life”.  Furthermore, a UKIP regional organiser opined that faith schools “must be allowed to teach Christian faith and morals” and appeared to describe secularism as little more than “political correctness”.  (What he thought about Islamic schools and their rights to teach morality isn’t recorded).

And so, while the main drivers of UKIP’s popularity have been dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and a belief among many that the party is honest and in tune with public concerns, there is more to UKIP than many of those voting for them believe. Most know where the party stand on the EU and immigration issues but probably do not realise the contempt the party has for democracy, its ambitions to reverse the devolution agreements, its anti-secular stance, its opposition to LGBT equality and its approach to social justice.  Its reduction of politics to anti-intellectualist shallow populism is to my mind equally repugnant. 

Embracing the challenge

The big question though is this: how do we solve a problem like UKIP?

The first step is to both accept that the problem exists and embrace the challenge. The next is then to more fully understand the nature of UKIP and the reasons for its broadening appeal.  I actually think these elections are as good as it’s ever going to get for UKIP, but such things can never be assumed and the real danger is not what UKIP may do to the electoral fortunes of the major parties but the impact they have on contemporary political conversation. 

What we cannot afford to do is continue being dismissive of UKIP as “not a serious party”. We need to show UKIP far more respect and treat them as any other party.  Condescension and insults tend not to be very productive in exposing a party for what they are; neither the Prime Minister’s “fruitcakes” and “closet racists” quips nor the suggestions that UKIP were simply not a credible party proved effective at persuading people not to vote for them and may well have the opposite effect. As Nick Robinson noted, no-one likes the “men in suits” telling them what to do. Back in 2009, it probably wasn’t the wisest move for a bunch of MPs and Anglican bishops to advise the public not to vote for the BNP.  They essentially all but assured the election of Nick Griffin.

This week the BNP lost its last county councillor.  This highlights the temporary nature of apparent “surges”. Only very recently UKIP was seen as a minor irrelevance by comparison with Griffin’s party. In areas like Burnley and Blackburn, where my brother stood in 2007 as an anti-BNP independent, it was the BNP who seemed unstoppable, making gains in previously safe Labour wards. Its collapse will be final when it loses its two MEPs in 2014.

In addressing the problem of UKIP, lessons can be learned from the experience of the BNP. Firstly, think long-term. Secondly, the main parties must be united in their opposition to UKIP’s rhetoric. Thirdly, address intolerance with hope and anti-intellectualism with reason. Fourthly, don’t “feed” UKIP’s desire for publicity or to be portrayed as victims of establishment tactics. Smear campaigns against them would prove counter-productive. Fifthly, they need to be engaged with; their arguments, presumptions and policies publicly challenged for them to be exposed. Debate is the best forum for exposing the character of Farage’s party – not smears in election leaflets.

From a Liberal Democrat perspective, we also have to accept responsibility for the current situation. While being the most pro-European of the main parties on paper, we have too often shirked from responsible debate and have failed to consistently speak up for Europe. We have effectively abandoned the debate to the little Englanders and have stood idly by while their bandwagon has steadily gained momentum.  We can no longer be afraid to speak positively of Europe. It is not, after all, a four-letter word. If we don’t make the case for a more integrated, collaborative and reformed EU, who will?

Hope not Hate, while somewhat limited, also proved in the case of the BNP that a pluralistic campaign against the retrograde social policies of a particular political party can prove successful. This is less likely to be the case with UKIP, not least as senior Tories are suggesting actually adopting some of their policies, but if there is scope for uniting against some of their more questionable standpoints then it should be explored. 

With the huge increase in the number of UKIP councillors a further question must be how effective will they be in local government.  In many cases groups of UKIP councillors have been elected with no experience of local government whatsoever.  This will inevitably tell.  The performances of BNP councillors in Blackburn certainly contributed to the loss of public faith in them as a viable “alternative”; there is no reason for thinking this will not also be true in UKIP’s case. Failures and weaknesses must be highlighted – surely if UKIP are so keen to be perceived as a “serious” party then the performances of its councillors should be scrutinised and criticised in the same way as any other party’s?

The principle means of resolving the UKIP problem must lie in challenging what it stands for.  That, of course, is much broader than Euroskepticism. Its narrow-minded nationalism, anti-secularism, anti-egalitarianism and risible economic policies must be openly confronted at every opportunity. We can no longer simply dismiss UKIP as an irrelevance.

How permanent is the UKIP threat?  At this moment that it is impossible to discern. What is certain is that the apparent strength of its populist nationalism is also a very real limitation; as Bloodworth argues, “UKIP represents the last gasp of a Britain that only ever existed in the imaginations of its supporters and romanticism will only take you so far in politics as in life.” The real test will come in the 2015 election, when pressure will be on UKIP to make a real political breakthrough and an election fought largely on the issue of Britain’s economic future will require some more mature thinking than UKIP have offered to date.  However, UKIP’s threat is not merely an electoral one – it also endangers the tolerant, liberal, multicultural and equal society Liberal Democrats exist to create.  If for that reason alone we need to stop treating UKIP as an eccentric but affable maverick and instead recognise it as the potentially dangerous, divisive and force for ultra-conservatism it is.