What does a political party have to do to get some respect in Westminster?
On Monday, UKIP’s first Member of Parliament took his seat in the House of Commons.
The party of gadflies, cranks, loonies, fruitcakes, closet racists and loons had just equalled the Green Party in finally securing representation in the Commons, with every chance of doubling the Greens’ achievement if Mark Reckless wins his by-election in Rochester and Strood, and joins Douglas Carswell MP in the UKIP caucus.
But two Conservative defections and worrying polling data indicating Labour’s vulnerability to the UKIP insurgency still have not resulted in any real change in tone or policy from either of the main political parties – though, in their most generous concession so far, some of their more nervous MPs now talk about the need to talk UKIP’s language while still doing what they’ve always done.
More curiously, the rest of the establishment has also made no tangible effort to reach out to the voters who are starting to desert them in droves.
(Calling them economically left-behind losers who are confused by change and nostalgic for a non-existent Olde England doesn’t count as a friendly overture).
One can understand the reticence of the main party leaders to move away from their current positions on UKIP. Any move by David Cameron to appeal more to UKIP sympathisers will cost him an indeterminate number of more liberal, socially progressive voters. And Ed Miliband’s 35% core vote strategy similarly relies on doing nothing that might upset his activist base.
The media, of course, is free from these constraints, but in the face of general unanimity from the main political parties has generally towed the line and adopted the narrative of the Westminster elite, fearful and dismissive of any disruptive new entrant into the market.
And yet there are simple steps that could be taken to at least stop enraging UKIP supporters, if not actively win them back into the arms of the legacy political parties.
In the run-up to the local and European elections earlier this year, grossly unfair accusations and generalisations were levelled at UKIP supporters and voters who had absolutely nothing to do with the rogue candidates talked about by the media (and usually quickly dismissed by a party hierarchy that is increasingly sensitive to image). The crazy views of one were taken to be the pinnacle of party orthodoxy, and lazy aspersions were thoughtlessly repeated by pundit after pundit.
But rather than learning from the way that these attacks misrepresentations backfired and galvanised the base in May, the strategy – from politicians and media alike – appears to be “more of the same!”
On Monday, The Telegraph newspaper was eager to report on the supposed car-crash radio phone-in interview by a UKIP supporter who had difficulty articulating UKIP’s main policies (perhaps a forgiveable sin – UKIP themselves repudiated their 2010 manifesto and have yet to release many details of their 2015 offering).
But to The Telegraph, excelling in its role as Voice of the Establishment, this was simply yet more evidence that UKIP supporters are all low-information, overly emotional voters who have been hoodwinked into giving their vote to a charlatan in the pub with a pint of ale and a cheeky grin.
From The Telegraph’s introduction to the video:
Fresh from winning its first MP at the Clacton-on-sea by-election, Ukip claims it can take on the three main political parties as a viable alternative – but if one were to judge from this supporter, they still have progress to make.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s xenophobic stance towards immigration seemed to be only policy that this voter had picked up on when he rang LBC radio to discuss what the party stood for. When challenged by host James O’Brien to name one Ukip policy, other than closing the UK’s borders, the squirming supporter was left struggling for words.
In these two short paragraphs are three damning indictments of not just The Telegraph’s journalism, but the establishment opinion which it represents.
“If one were to judge from this supporter…”
It hardly needs saying that making judgements based on one supporter is unlikely to lead to useful information. It may have been good clickbait for The Telegraph, but if you really want to start to understand UKIP voters you need to delve into the granular detail of polls and surveys of UKIP supporters.
The academics Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin made just such an attempt in their recent book “Revolt on the right: Explaining support for the radical right in Britain“. While their left-of-centre bias is evident and some of their conclusions are questionable, the numbers do not lie and represent an honest attempt to understand the real “typical UKIP voter”, if such a person exists.
“UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s xenophobic stance towards immigration…”
Xenophobia can be defined as “an intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries”. UKIP’s stance on immigration is that unlimited intra-EU immigration is bad for Britain because of the impact on the labour market and public services. This may be right or it may be wrong, but it is a judgement based on socio-economic grounds, not racial, ethnic or nationalist ones.
It is true that some UKIP supporters do harbour genuinely racist opinions and ideas – Ford and Goodwin discuss this further in their book – but it is an outright lie to say that UKIP’s policy on immigration is xenophobic or racist. The facts simply do not support the outrageous accusation, and any reasonable person with access to a dictionary can determine this for themselves.
“…to name one UKIP policy, other than closing the UK’s borders…”
This simply isn’t UKIP’s policy. Closing the UK’s borders suggests a complete halt to all inward migration (and outward too, for that matter). What UKIP propose is a controlled, points-based system with quotas, so that only those immigrants with useful skills and the ability to fend for themselves are granted entry. The example frequently cited by Nigel Farage and other UKIP supporters is that of Australia, where prospective immigrants have to meet certain standards to be allowed to settle.
In some interpretations, UKIP’s policy could actually open the UK’s borders wider to certain people from non-EU countries, because EU immigration would no longer be unlimited. To suggest that their policy is to “close the UK’s borders” is not just an overstatement, it’s an outright falsehood.
Two short paragraphs in a major British daily newspaper, and three complete and utter failures of basic journalism and objectivity.
Of course every political party finds itself being misinterpreted and misquoted from time to time. But these are basic facts that go to the core of UKIP’s growing appeal to the British electorate. We’re not talking about some arcane policy on crop subsidies that nobody cares about, we’re talking about a highly emotive, controversial and topical political issue. The Telegraph should at least do its readers the courtesy of getting basic facts right.
These are three lessons that should have been learned months ago by anyone with a vested interest in stemming UKIP’s rise in popularity and electoral success. And yet the same howlers are being committed week after week by the very people who have the most to lose from poking UKIP supporters in the eye. Never mind bad journalism or politics, it’s bad self preservation.
At the end of the day, it comes down to a matter of respect.
UKIP voters and those flirting with the idea of voting UKIP simply do not feel that their views and opinions are taken seriously or respected by the main political parties, let alone positively acted on. And who can say that they are wrong? What steps have any of the political parties taken to cater to the hopes or the fears of UKIP voters (as identified by Goodwin and Ford) over the past decade?
There may be very good reasons why Labour and the Conservatives, and the establishment that stands behind their duopoly, are unable to cater to the political beliefs and demands of the UKIP voter.
But there’s no need to continue the outright disdain and misrepresentation of these peoples’ feelings and beliefs, a scorn that the establishment – as epitomised by The Telegraph’s article on Monday – seem loathe to set aside.
One UKIP MP sitting in Westminster. Another quite possibly on the way in November.
Perhaps now it’s time for a little respect.