Do you recognise this man?
You may remember him from a short-lived television sitcom a few years back, in which he played the self-important, somewhat sexist and xenophobic proprietor of a scruffy, down-at-heel pub. Yes, this is Al Murray the Pub Landlord.
Murray’s career has consisted primarily of wringing the same laughs out of the same jokes involving the same character, over and over again, year after year; if you’ve seen one of his television or stage shows, you have more or less seen them all. But Al Murray’s latest reinvention comes with a political twist – he is running for election as the Free United Kingdom Party (FUKP) candidate in South Thanet, the same constituency that UKIP leader Nigel Farage is contesting in the general election this May.
Murray’s apparent goal is to win a few more laughs (and a much needed publicity boost) by melding his stereotypical pub landlord persona with Nigel Farage’s pro-British populism, a process that is aided by their shared love of real ale; this is not complex, thought-provoking comedy.
The Spectator provides a taste of FUKP’s manifesto:
- The pound in your pocket: The pound will be revalued at one pound 10p, so it will now be worth 10p more. Common sense.
- The NHS: If you come to A&E and it’s neither an accident nor an emergency then you will be sent to a random hospital department to be practised on. Common sense.
- Foreign Policy: Germany has been too quiet for too long. Just saying.
- Immigration: Of course the reason they are coming here is because this is the greatest country in the world. The only way to stop them is for a government to change that and make things a whole lot worse. Look no further. However, in the meantime, we brick up the Channel Tunnel. With British bricks. Probably have to get some Poles in to do it. Common sense.
You get the idea.
This is not a serious candidacy, and any journalistic interest that it happens to generate will not be serious either. Al Murray is certainly no Al Franken (the American comedian turned US Senator) – he neither has a chance of winning his seat, nor is there much evidence that he would surprise everyone by quietly getting on with the job of becoming a highly competent MP were he actually elected.
And yet there is a serious point lurking behind Al Murray’s joke. The FUKP spoiler campaign in South Thanet is part of a broader effort being made by various detractors – as well as numerous incidences of friendly fire – to taint UKIP with the fatal aura of ridiculousness. People will vote for a soft, wheedling, directionless party if it seems like the best of a bad bunch. Ed Miliband is counting on it. People will also vote for a tough and uncompromising party, even if it is seen as “nasty”, so long as it exudes competence at a time of crisis.
But nobody will vote for a party that looks and sounds ridiculous, or one which is led by a clown. Just as reputations for fiscal incontinence or being the “nasty party” are inordinately difficult to shake off, the perception of being a two-dimensional caricature of a political party can halt any forward momentum in its tracks. If anyone actually succeeds in pushing UKIP across the event horizon of foolishness (and they are already perilously close in the eyes of some wavering voters) then the established parties can all breathe a little easier.
And Al Murray is not to be underestimated on the stump. The comedian is no stranger to campaigning – here he is speaking at the “Let’s Stay Together” unity rally for the United Kingdom (a welcome but rather underwhelming affair) in London on the eve of the Scottish independence referendum last year:
Much more worrying than the spoiler candidacy of Al Murray, though, are the unwitting comedians who have infiltrated too many of UKIP’s local branches. These amateur acts pop up at inopportune moments to generate bad headlines for the party and remind everyone that despite Nigel Farage’s consummate showmanship, and the remarkable addition of Parliamentary heavyweights Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless to the lineup, this is still a young political party experiencing severe growing pains as the national and local infrastructures strain to keep up with the rising polls.
Case in point: only yesterday, newspapers broke a story about the antics of UKIP’s local party secretary in Dartford, whose adolescent indignation at being disagreed with was not only alarming to those on the receiving end, but too readily suggestive of an immature party staffed largely by immature people. ThisIsLocalLondon reports:
The secretary of UKIP in Dartford has been branded “pathetic” for penning a bizarre letter to the neighbours of a man who insulted him. Party activist Simon Blanchard posted the two-page rant to Brian Kemp and several other residents of Ethelbert Road in Hawley.
In the letter, which was actually penned to Mr Kemp, Mr Blanchard complained about the “verbal insult” made to him and said he “felt the need to pass a copy of this letter to every immediate neighbour of yours for their own information and protection.”
The missive then makes 14 points comparing the EU to a “Gym” to which a “distant Uncle” has signed up his nephew, i.e the UK, without his consent.
The letter (and the circumstances surrounding it) make for painful reading:
But venture onto any online comments forum, Twitter or Facebook and you will find similar tirades from people who may not be official party representatives – or even members at all – but who still spew their colourful opinions under UKIP’s purple banner. The UKIP Debating Society Facebook page, a closed group for party supporters where current news stories are debated from a UKIP perspective, is full of Land of Hope and Glory paeans and “If you don’t like X or Y about Britain then get out” rhetoric, though some reasoned discussion can also be found.
(Full disclosure: your blogger occasionally posts articles at this site and interacts with members to gauge the feeling of UKIP’s online netroots).
Ultimately, it is these slightly dubious local party chiefs and overzealous activists who are more likely to push UKIP into the swamp of ridiculousness than the efforts of Al Murray, who, for all his B-list fame, is contesting only one seat.
Murray may cause Nigel Farage a few blushes and grab the odd headline as FUKP mocks UKIP slogans and policy positions (indeed, Farage’s party party could well lose a number of votes thanks to voter confusion over the two acronyms, as Sebastian Payne points out in The Spectator). But the damage that Al Murray can do is constrained by the fact that he is one man standing for election in one constituency.
By contrast, UKIP’s “hidden timebomb” local councillors and candidates are dispersed around the country, and could detonate at any moment, while their brigade of unaffiliated online trolls are almost guaranteed to cause further controversy before polling stations close on 7 May.
Regardless – Good luck to Al Murray as he stands for Parliament in South Thanet. May he keep his deposit, and bring a smile to the faces of local voters as he goes about his campaign. But it is not the Pub Landlord who most threatens to make Nigel Farage and his party look foolish.
That particular danger lies far closer to home.