Here in the eternally green, pleasant and Blue-or-Yellow-ruled West Country, a gruelling night of ballot-box overturning revealed astounding levels of support for United Kingdom Independence Party, Britain’s foremost catch-all protest party of wax-jacketed xenophobes.
Nationally, UKIP have just pulled off the biggest jump in support any fourth party has achieved in over half a century. At the last County elections in 2009, eight UKIP councillors were elected. Yesterday, they got 147. Of all the votes cast in 34 separate elections across England, nearly a quarter went to UKIP. In Somerset, they leapt from nowhere to secure three seats.
Three councillors out of a potential 55 doesn’t sound especially significant. But UKIP ran a shoestring campaign, standing virtual unknowns in wards usually obsessed with the localness of the candidate. Their leaflets often didn’t contain the name of the candidate, or anything about the election, or mention the word ‘Somerset’ once. Despite all this, they managed to equal a well-funded, vigorously-fought Labour campaign (three seats for Labour, even post-Blair Labour, is fairly impressive in Somerset), take Minehead, thought to be unshakably Tory, and, perhaps most spectacularly of all, wrest Chard North and Yeovil Central away from the Lib Dems – both being put-a-pig-in-a-yellow-rosette-and-it’ll-get-elected territory since Paddy Ashdown was both party leader and the Yeovil MP.
And these were just the instances when UKIP broke the surface of our public mood-warping electoral system – across the county, UKIP paper candidates were coming second in wards they’d barely dented in the past, taking chunks out of usually-enormous Tory majorities, furthering the Lib Dem collapse and foiling Labour’s attempts at expansion.
It might be a temporary blip, a fluke, a nation-sweeping funny five minutes, but, for the moment, UKIP have arrived as Britain’s political party number four.
Twitter is a very useful tool, but obsessive Twitterati culture can be fairly nausea-inducing. Still, it’s worth monitoring the London intelligentsia’s favoured electronic playpen for timely insights into how it thinks. Yesterday the Financial Times’ Janan Ganesh summed up the general mood of the complacent liberal elite by authoritatively declaring:
“SDP in 1983. Greens in 1989. Ukip now. Some people always think politics is on the lip of a grand realignment. It almost never is.”
The remotely progressive part of the population obviously hoped Ganesh’s smug auguring was right. But while UKIP’s electoral haul didn’t amount to a foundation-rattling transformation, it was undoubtedly a breakthrough. No fourth party has ever sprung from nowhere to reel in nearly a quarter of all votes cast.
UKIP is transparently racist, sexist, homophobic, horrifically backward in its outlook on everything from disability to global warming and, in essence, to hidebound rural bigots what the BNP is to disgruntled middle-aged white men struggling to survive in glumly post-industrial England. Its success, therefore, is an overwhelmingly bad thing.
But as a purely electoral phenomenon, UKIP poses the biggest threat to the Tories. It wasn’t long before Conservative Party co-chair Grant Shapps was claiming that he “got” why the Purple Perils had done so well at the ballot box.
“I do accept that people are sending quite a clear message. They are impatient for change. They want the economy fixed, they want the welfare system sorted out, they want a government that is on the side of hardworking people, they want the immigration system resolved and a say over Europe as well. That is a very loud and clear message.”
Wearyingly, Shapps is right about the popular preoccupation with benefits and immigrants. Over decades, his own party and right-wing media outlets have done a very good job of making foreign workers and benefit claimants the scapegoat of choice for millions of people who barely scrape by against a political and economic backdrop tilted in favour of the scandalously wealthy.
And yet, while the content hits several grim political nails on their respective heads, Shapps’s standard zombie-politico statement also represents another sizeable part of the UKIP problem.
It’s nothing original – in fact it’s been fruitlessly whinged about for years – but mainstream politicians all look, sound, and, to a large extent, govern the same. Privileged lawyer-types with roots in the affluent South East, a post-Blairite conception of politics as a high-return career choice rather than a passionate conviction, and the natural warmth and charisma of a manikin in a meat locker dominate the political mainstream.
When the people in charge look interchangeable and things keep getting worse, it’s natural to plump or someone who looks as different as possible. Enter Nigel Farage, genial, amiable, pint-able Nigel with his industrial-strength wide-boy bluster and willingness to say things that mainstream politicians are afraid to, and people start to see a political alternative that isn’t really there.
And, under the surface, substantial political choice has been eradicated. It’s a perennial gripe that manages to unite those left of Labour and right of the Tories – over twenty years, the political differences between the Big Two parties have shrunk, becoming more insignificant than they arguably ever have been.
The sellotaped-together least-worst that is representative democracy can just about grant voters a remotely meaningful say in how the country is run when there are a diverse range of political opinions on offer. When there aren’t, it can’t.
It’s not a stridently left-wing outsider-party that’s making electoral inroads on the back of popular disgruntlement. For the Left, UKIP’s success is just another bump and jolt on its decades-long downhill slide. Tragically, UKIP express a kind of Mail-and-Murdoch moulded hard-right “common sense” that has gained traction everywhere from Thatcher-blighted post-industrial towns to the eye-wateringly conservative shires.
The economic crisis, so the story goes, has been caused by a benefit-spewing frenzy, and mass immigration is endangering the British way of life. It’s utter garbage, and demolished by the facts – definitively, immigrants pay far more into the economy that they take out in benefits, for example.
As far as immigration goes, the truth is far more nuanced. The destruction of the mass-employing manufacturing industry has led to a thirty-year grapple for a shrinking number of service sector jobs. In the 2000s, large numbers of Central and Eastern European workers did come to Britain, used to lower wages and worse working conditions, and created even more competition for work that was already hard to come by.
Largely white ex-industrial communities got understandably angry – but rather than venting their discontent at the catastrophic political agenda that had originally destroyed the industrial way of life, dismayingly many blamed the immigrants themselves for their troubles, egged-on by the right-wing press. And far away, safely cossetted in the country, too many among the rural population read their right-wing papers and started to think the same.
The Right, tragically dominant, stokes xenophobia to divert people from railing against the brutal politics that were the real cause of post-industrial misery. And the frighteningly influential TV media has done what it does dismally often – uncritically regurgitated the messages coming from ‘official’ sources, be they political party press offices, government ministers, or hard-right papers, and, on the side, shaped how people see and think about the world around them.
“UKIP?”, the public warily ponders, fed up of the political norm. “UKIP!” the televisual echo chamber bellows in response. UKIP on Question Time, UKIP on the news, on the front pages – UKIP covered far more prominently than the Greens, RESPECT, or any other fourth party who, unlike Farage and friends, have a presence in parliament.
And it goes on, becoming more insistent, bouncing into people’s living rooms, gaining a grim momentum all of its own. Everywhere, “UKIP! UKIP! UKIP! UKIP!”, to the extent where voting for them seems inevitable, where people don’t even know or care what the word means anymore – it’s just become a means of lashing out against all you’re told is wrong with the world, Johnny Foreigner most of all, and a political caste that doesn’t care you exist.
And this is how a group of people who, if they were around in the 1930s, would’ve liked Mussolini if he wasn’t foreign, end up taking horrific proportions of votes cast in a democratic election.