“…the core question of our time is how we meet the challenge of globalisation, and how we retool or retire the idea of the nation state in response. You can agree with UKIP’s stance or despise it with every fibre of your being, but right now they are the only British political party to have identified the core problem and gone before the electorate with a proposed solution.”
‘Tis the season for Year In Review blog posts and breathless predictions about what more to expect in 2015. And while these can be good fun to write, and even read, it is safe to say that none of the political predictions, at least, are worth the paper they are printed on, or the real estate they occupy on your smartphone screen.
The truth is, nobody knows what will happen as Britain enters the seismic election year of 2015. The outcome of this general election is almost impossible to predict, and certainly cannot be divined by examining national-level polling that fails to take into account the furious dynamics that will come into play in individual constituencies. Those who confidently predict the total electoral obliteration of the Liberal Democrats forget the huge effort expended by many LibDem MPs to effectively ingratiate themselves with their local electorates, for example, while those predicting that Nigel Farage’s People’s Army will occupy multiple benches in the House of Commons after May 7 overlook just how punishing Britain’s electoral system always is to new and insurgent parties.
But if it is not possible to look forward with much certainty – though a hung parliament and some form of ‘confidence and supply’ minority administration led by either the Tories or Labour seems increasingly likely – we can at least look back at the year that was 2014, in order to see who has been right and who has been calamitously wide of the mark.
This may be but a small political blog tucked away in a lonely corner of the internet, but Semi-Partisan Sam yields to very few others in terms of 2014 prognostications, both in terms of predicting the inexorable rise of UKIP and in genuine attempts to understand the motivations of that increasing bloc of voters who give Nigel Farage’s party the time of day. The Times of London may have generated headlines this week after naming Nigel Farage as their Briton of the Year, but they were twelve months late to the party – this blog was warning of UKIP’s significance and the danger of ignoring what are now seen as core UKIP issues when 2014 was barely underway.
This blog had already detected the ground shifting back in January of this year, well before UKIP stormed to success in the spring European and local elections, noting that even when we do manage to have a “national conversation” on the subject of immigration, we only ever seem to succeed in talking past one another:
This is yet another argument where the two opposing sides seem to argue back and forth over an irrelevant distraction rather than the main issue. Why is it that immigration has, at times, led to divided communities and fractured society? Why must it be that immigration puts the young British unemployed at even more of a disadvantage? If only we could begin to address and turn around these key issues, surely the matter of net immigration into the UK would cease to be of almost any importance at all.
It also linked the friction and anger over immigration back to its root cause in education, a theme to which this blog has frequently returned, but which is still not adequately discussed by most pundits and politicians:
We should take a long, hard look at our education system and parenting culture and ask why it is that a young adult born and raised behind the iron curtain in an economic, political and social environment far less prosperous and nurturing than that of the UK is so often preferable, in the eyes of so many reputable and rational employers, to a British-born young jobseeker who has enjoyed all of these advantages.
As February rolled around, UKIP became embroiled in one of many scandals to have broken over the party, this time regarding UKIP MEP Gerard Batten’s call for an Islamic code of conduct, worryingly similar to McCarthyite loyalty inquisitions. As has been his model for dealing with such negative stories, UKIP leader Nigel Farage was slow to react at all, letting the protagonist twist in the wind before issuing either support or condemnation – for which this blog took him to task:
Perhaps UKIP wants to be a party of unapologetic Islamophobia and a cheerleader for freedom of religion, but only when Christian freedoms are perceived as being threatened. And if so, that is their choice to make – free speech is still just about protected in this country, and UKIP are entitled to campaign on that platform. In turn, I would also then be freed from the desire to give them any further serious consideration and airtime on this blog, because I would exercise my right to avoid associating myself with such a party.
If Mr. Farage could please make up his mind on these issues and convey the message to his troops, the rest of us will know whether to keep giving UKIP the time of day, or letting them jog on by.
Of course, this was just the first of many subsequent scandals to embroil the party during 2014. Only weeks later, UKIP were on the back foot once again after a local councillor had publicly attributed the springtime floods afflicting Britain to God’s wrath about gay marriage. While wholeheartedly decrying such nonsensical views, this blog did admire the way that Nigel Farage defended the right of people to hold preposterous views:
Blaming the recent flooding in England on the government’s pro-gay marriage stance, or suggesting that the country has become something akin to a foreign land (as Farage regrettably went on to do later in the same appearance) are ludicrous. But there is something to be said for a big tent political party that doesn’t automatically excommunicate its members for going off-script.
Fast-forward to March, and Britain was captivated by the spectacle of two televised debates on the subject of Britain’s membership of the European Union. Both Prime Minister David Cameron and Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband ducked the challenge, so it was left to the staunchly europhile Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to battle it out with Nigel Farage from the “No” camp.
This blog was not alone in being outraged at the media’s initial attempt to spin the result of the first debate as a victory for Nick Clegg and the pro-Europeans, despite overwhelming post-debate polling data to the contrary:
Given the testy nature of the debate and the fact that Nick Clegg was on the back foot for nearly the entire duration, one wonders what would have had to happen – short of either man accidentally lighting his podium on fire – for the news media to declare an actual victory for either side.
And this typifies a problem that is becoming endemic in the news media, not only in Britain but also in the United States. All too often, there is such a tremendous pressure to appear nonbiased and objective that news organisations are terrified to report on anything of a partisan nature without giving equal balance to both arguments. The compulsion to treat both sides of an argument as equally valid and legitimate – even when one is clearly correct and the other one wrong – is paralysing the ability of many news outlets to correctly report the news, even when there is no deliberate attempt to give favourable editorial treatment to a particular side.
The next topic to cause UKIP-related outrage amongst the Westminster commentariat was Nigel Farage’s cautious, heavily annotated but deliberately misinterpreted words of admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin. While a careful parsing of Farage’s words made it quite clear that the UKIP leader was expressing admiration only for the muscular way in which the Russian president sought to advance his own national interest, it was firmly in the interests of everyone with an agenda to falsely imply that Farage was somehow endorsing Vladimir Putin’s specific policies.
By this point, however, the establishment’s increasingly nervous attempts to tarnish the UKIP brand were starting to backfire. The Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley summed it up perfectly when he pointed out that the more the big three political parties sought to gang up on UKIP and make Nigel Farage appear as the outsider, the more they inadvertently revealed the degree to which there was vanishingly small difference between them:
And that’s Farage’s real sin: he dares to be different. Contemporary British politics works by an unusual degree of consensus. All three party leaders want to stay in the EU, all wish to preserve the principle of the welfare state, all back gay marriage, all accept the need to go green, none will challenge the concept of open borders on immigration. Some or all of these positions may well be right – that’s not the issue. The issue is that this homogeneity of opinion is fundamentally undemocratic. In democracies, voters are supposed to be offered real choices rather than one establishment philosophy spun three different ways. To make matters worse, the party leaders now not only sound alike but also lookalike.
Then came the local and European election campaign in May.
As UKIP soared in the polls and it became increasingly likely that the party would win the European election and pick up swathes of councillors in the local elections, it became increasingly difficult to tell whether the main political parties or the mainstream media had more to lose from the threatened outcome. Few media outlets acquitted themselves well during this time, but the BBC was particularly poor, first having to suspend the editor of the BBC News Channel for her virulently anti-UKIP remarks on social media, and then for broadasting an abysmally poor, non policy-focussed “gotcha” interview of Nigel Farage conducted by political editor Nick Robinson.
As this blog commented at the time:
The BBC had a golden opportunity to ask some real questions of Nigel Farage, to delve into policy differences with the other parties or at least to engage in a bit of speculation and expectations-setting with regard to the upcoming European elections. But they weren’t interested in the policy discussion (the noble option) or in analysing the polls (the political infotainment option). They went instead for the classic hatchet job, the interview ambush that neither educates the informed viewer or grabs the attention of the casual viewer, serving instead only to give David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg some weak ammunition for their negative anti-UKIP political ads.
This was the cheap and tawdry approach taken by a news organisation (if this interview and other recent form is anything to go by) that is becoming increasingly lazy and only comfortable discussing the European Union debate through the existing lens of Labour vs Conservative, more Europe vs a little bit less Europe. The alternative – an end to British membership of the EU – is seen as so radical and threatening to the establishment that it must simply be ignored, or (when feigning ignorance is no longer possible) loudly ridiculed and discredited.
By this time, however, it was becoming fashionable not only to abuse UKIP politicians and activists, including the time-honoured ritual of pelting Nigel Farage with eggs, but also to hound, villify and slander ordinary people who expressed support for the party. As the anti-UKIP hysteria became increasingly shrill and toxic, this blog spoke out in defence of the ordinary British people who suddenly found themselves being insulted and threatened merely for holding a selection of quite mainstream political opinions:
Eleanor Roosevelt once said “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” In the panic and scramble by the British political establishment to respond to the surging popularity of UKIP, there has been talk of events and an inordinate amount of talk about individual people – rogue candidates and their wacky, off-message personal views. The volume of discussion – and intelligent criticism – of UKIP’s actual policies, however, has been negligible. Small minds predominate …
Millions upon millions of normal, decent and tolerant people support UKIP’s stance on Europe and other matters. The establishment’s response to this fact so far has been either to pen hand-wringing and patronising columns fretting about how the public’s inchoate anger at politics-as-usual is causing them to be duped like fools into supporting a nascent far-right party, or to accuse them outright of harbouring racist views. In other words, as the establishment would have it, UKIP supporters are either racists or gullible fools. The third option – that they might be semi-intelligent people with a legitimate political point – is not widely accepted.
This blog was also one of the first to point out that UKIP stood to benefit from a peculiarly British quirk – our enduring love of the underdog. As the barrage of negative headlines continued (not all of them underserved – far from it, in the case of Nigel Farage’s odious comments about Romanians), the sense that it might lead to a pro-underdog, pro-UKIP backlash grew stronger:
But secondly and most importantly, we British love an underdog. You can sense Nigel Farage’s frustration and impatience every time one of his improperly-vetted candidates or publicity-seeking spokespeople says something outrageous or defects in a blaze of negative publicity. One gets the impression that UKIP’s leader is fighting a solitary David and Goliath-style battle against the establishment and against the odds, very much alone. And as the immature party apparatus creaks and groans around him as it tries to fight a national campaign, one catches oneself rooting for the man. Or at least, 31% of the voters do.
When Nigel Farage and UKIP went too far, as with the appalling comments about Romanian immigrants, this blog was quick to call them out and warn that truly divisive rhetoric of that kind was completely unacceptable:
This twenty minute radio interview, this “car crash”, also reminds us that some of UKIP’s principles – euroscepticism, libertarianism, that fervent anti-establishment spirit – are too important to be entrusted to any one single person, even the leader.
The British voters deserve a eurosceptic, libertarian party that they can vote for in good conscience and without fear of unintentionally consorting with or abetting racists, while moderate UKIP supporters deserve to be able to watch the evening news without constant fear or trepidation of the next scandal about to beset them.
But beyond these missteps and genuine outrages, something else was at work. UKIP’s rise could not be explained purely in terms of excitement about a new force in politics and the British people’s love of an underdog. People were also finding themselves drawn to UKIP out of a desire to see conviction politics make a comeback in Britain. And the perfect expression of Britain’s lack of conviction politics came when both Labour and the Conservatives hired ex-Obama staffers to help with their messaging – Jim Messina for the Tories and David Axelrod for Labour.
The fact that Britain’s two main political parties occupied such a narrow space on the ideological spectrum that they were both recruiting from a very specific pool of US Democratic Party operatives was the straw that broke the camel’s back for this blog:
It is a terrible indictment of the British political system that both main political parties – our two ‘polar opposites’, the alpha and the omega of our choices come election day – are either so intellectually bankrupt or coldly calculating that they can both recruit from same same American political talent pool and still present themselves to the British public as though they are different as chalk and cheese.
When viewed in this context, it suddenly seemed quite logical that voters were seeking a clearly differentiated alternative:
Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher are no longer with us, and British politics is suffering the absence of them and their kind. The few conviction politicians left in the House of Commons tend to be curmudgeonly old men and women (think Glenda Jackson or John Redwood) whose prime days are behind them and who will never be brought back in from the margins. And this leaves the political future to be shaped by the oily likes of Ed Miliband in the labour party (with young guns such as Chuka Umunna or Gloria de Piero to look forward to when he is inevitably deposed), and Cameron-Osborne for the Tories.
So forget about the European Union and the Newark by-election. Forget about the mudslinging and accusations of racism from one side and intimidation from the other. In many ways, it’s all just noise, the kind of nonsense we are left to argue about when there is so little left to distinguish the three main political parties from each other when it comes to real life policy.
And as election day dawned, this blog refused to shed a tear for Britain’s main political parties as they received the drubbing which, collectively, they so richly deserved. But despite this moment of catharsis, it was important to remember that little was likely to change following the result – with the three main parties still committed to EU membership and uncontrolled immigration, it would take a lot more to push them off course:
Today, the British people will speak and deliver their verdict on 39 years of ever-closer union without consultation, but no one will tremble before our decision. The party PR machines will whir into action, the spin doctors will get to work and a herculean exercise in groupthink will take place until the establishment convince themselves – and many of us – that the result is an aberration, a blip, a flash in the pan which can be explained away with talking points until normal business can quietly resume.
After UKIP’s thumping victory in May there was finally time for some introspection from those quarters who had previously devoted all of their time to promulgating anti-UKIP hysteria. And as the pro-Europeans and Guardianistas scratched their heads and asked themselves “why?”, this blog was ready with a firm answer:
To be a UKIP voter watching or reading the news today must feel as though you are a dangerous but valuable specimen kept in a lab, with a curious Guardian reader in a hazmat suit poking you through the safety glass to see how you respond to political stimuli while someone from CCHQ takes notes and a BuzzFeed staffer snaps pictures and adds mocking captions. I CAN HAZ PINT WITH NIGEL NOW?
This can’t be a very pleasant experience – the resultant emotion is likely to be one of immense irritation at being so misunderstood and publicly belittled. In fact, the only thing likely to make the whole damn experience any better is watching Nigel Farage’s smiling face as he sinks another pint and poses for photographs with his victorious local candidates.
And so things continued, until the summer recess and build-up to conference season saw the shocking defections of both Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, sitting Conservative MPs, to UKIP, thus triggering two local by-elections. This body-blow for David Cameron’s Conservative Party could possibly have been avoided had the political establishment shown any genuine humility and desire to listen to UKIP voters following the May elections. But the anti-UKIP slurs continued, together with almost cartel-like agreement between the parties to refuse to give an inch in terms of genuine policy concessions.
In seeking to explain how the main parties had once again fallen short, as well as demonstrating the growing appeal of defection among sitting MPs, this blog drew a comparison with the recently concluded Scottish independence referendum campaign:
In the final, fraught days of the Scottish independence referendum, some of our leaders finally began to rediscover their sense of Britishness and started, haltingly, to speak about our many great national attributes and strengths. This was an important development, and long overdue.
But whenever the Europe question is raised, senior British politicians from all of the main parties instantly forget the many reasons to be confident in Britain as a sovereign nation, and revert to their well-rehearsed narrative of a small, inconsequential Britain buffeted by forces outside her control and unable to act as a strong, independent player on the world stage.
If the establishment really wants to halt the advance of UKIP and prevent any further defections of MPs from either party, they need to learn to start talking about Britain in the same positive way with regard to Europe as they belatedly learned to do in the Scottish independence referendum debate. And until that happens, Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party will continue to rise by reminding voters – to quote Mark Reckless – that Britain can be so much “more than a star on someone else’s flag”.
But neither mainstream politicians nor the press were willing to learn the lesson. As late as mid October, this blog noticed conservative-leaning publications such as The Telegraph – who one might think would be particularly keen to avoid angering the wavering Tory/UKIP vote – blatantly misrepresenting UKIP policy, falsely claiming that UKIP sought to “close the border” and halt all immigration, and then calling UKIP policies “xenophobic” without a shred of supporting evidence:
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.
And so as 2014 draws to a close, the party once dismissively referred to by David Cameron as being full of “closet racists and fruitcakes” now boasts two sitting Members of Parliament, twice as many as the also-ascendant Green Party. It would have been possible to cite many more pivotal moments that formed a key part of UKIP’s journey this year, but these provide a good flavour – and also happen to demonstrate that while UKIP’s rise caught many others off guard, it was not only anticipated but understood at this blog.
It is customary to end with a bold, simple conclusion, or a distillation of the various cases examined into a single coherent theme. With the rise of UKIP, this is difficult to do. But if there is one explanation above all for the way in which Nigel Farage’s once-disorganised People’s Army have wrongfooted and humiliated the political establishment time and again in 2014, it is this: in recent years, decades even, the interests of the establishment have diverged from those of an increasingly large segment of the British people. And 2014 was the year that the overlooked, taken-for-granted British people pushed back.
As UKIP’s victory in Rochester and Strood became increasingly certain, this blog warned:
The free movement of peoples in Europe is a wonderful idea. But in order for it to work painlessly, you need an education system that produces young adults capable of doing the type of skilled jobs that cannot be automated, outsourced or undercut by immigrants from poorer parts of the EU. And for the millions of British adults who currently lack these lucrative skills, you need viable pathways back into education or training to re-equip them to compete in this new world. That’s the difficult political conversation that nobody is having right now.
Different pundits and newspapers will explain it using slightly different words (if and when their thinking eventually catches up), but however you hear it expressed in the coming days and weeks, it basically comes down to Europe and globalisation. Or to put it another way:
The challenge for the main political parties, if they want to survive past the 2015 general election, is this: find a way to make EU membership work for the bottom half of British society, and then sell it to them. If the protectionism of immigration controls is undesirable or impossible, what will Labour or the Conservatives do to equip Britain’s children and struggling adults to compete and prosper in today’s global labour market? And how will they promote and nurture a healthy sense of national identity, Britishness, amid so much change?
UKIP are prospering not because the establishment has failed to solve these challenges, but because they haven’t even tried.
This is the core challenge facing Britain, and indeed all Western countries, as we navigate this early part of the twenty-first century. Austerity, immigration, national security and foreign relations may be important and may present more tangible day-to-day policy differences for us to analyse and fight over, but the core question of our time is how we meet the challenge of globalisation, and how we retool or retire the idea of the nation state in response. You can agree with UKIP’s stance or despise it with every fibre of your being, but right now they are the only British political party to have identified the core problem and gone before the electorate with a proposed solution.
Of course, none of this guarantees UKIP significant success in the 2015 general election. And while anyone should think twice before betting against UKIP following their gains in 2014, it could well be the case that the electorate return only a handful of UKIP MPs to Westminster in May. Identifying and proposing policy solutions to the main challenge of our day counts for very little when nobody else – even many of your own supporters – realise that this is the struggle they are actually engaged in. And at present, UKIP are winning national support and by-elections more as a result of an anti-establishment backlash than because of their perceptive, but shifting, worldview.
From UKIP’s perspective, if the 2015 general election unfolds in the manner of all previous general elections – that is, a broadly national level story with a few local quirks thrown in here and there – they are very likely to underperform the wildest expectations of their supporters and cheerleaders. If, however, British politics really has undergone a seismic shift and splintered from its previous trajectory, and if the general election unfolds not as a cohesive national arc but as a series of fiercely contested by-elections and regional dramas, then UKIP can look forward to a strong performance and inflicting serious if not existential damage to the main political parties.
But no matter how 2015 unfolds – whether Nigel Farage’s party continue their process of growth and maturation through the general election, or whether the establishment parties are able to seize back the momentum by finally learning to connect with the electorate with meaningful responses of their own to the challenges of globalisation – we all have reason to be grateful to UKIP this year.
The three centrist, establishment political parties have at last been shocked out of their collective complacency, against all the odds. Labour, LibDem or Tory, they are all gnawingly pessimistic about their fortunes when they face the voters next May. And instead of being openly contemptuous of the electorate, the Westminster elite now actually fear it – which is exactly how it should be in a healthy democracy.
And as this trying year draws to a welcome close, for that much at least we can be glad.
Cover Image: Harjit Gill, former mayor of Gloucester, shakes hands with Nigel Farage after announcing his defection to UKIP today. Despite continual accusations of deliberate, party-wide racism and xenophobia, UKIP continue to recruit high profile defectors from the establishment parties, including a number of ethnic minority candidates and politicians.