What a week for UKIP. By any standard political measure, the blowback from their British Jobs for British Workers campaign, the Faragey-bargy over expenses and employment of his German wife as secretary, and candidates who can't help but say stupid, racist things would have been severely bruising. Yet as we survey the damage wrought by a hurricane of hypocrisy, bigotry and lies we find UKIP with nary a scratch. Today's YouGov poll for the Sunday Times finds them leading the pack for the European elections on 31% (Labour are second with 28%, the Tories on a pitiful 19%), and a 15% score for the general election, which is their standard going rate these days. So UKIP must be coated in teflon, right? How does Farage stand athwart the UKIP wicket and bat away every googly with seemingly little effort?
The answer lies in the position UKIP occupies in our broken political system. You see supporters of mainstream politics - Tories especially - look down their noses at UKIP because it doesn't have any MPs. This allows them to pretend to themselves that the party fast bleeding their right flank doesn't actually matter. Ex-MP and Twitter celeb Louise Mensch in today's Sun (£) sums it up. While UKIP remains a racist joke party of the dud, the mad and the smugly then no mainstream outfit will want to do a deal with them (oops facts). She'd like to see Farage step aside and UKIP undergo professionalisation so it becomes a eurosceptic Tory home-from-home her party could cut a coalition deal with.
From the angry pen of Nick Cohen comes this withering take down, and it's very difficult to disagree with his argument. Farage is a phoney and yes, the media are culpable for not just creating him but fanning the flames of hard right anti-immigrant politics. Where I would quibble with Nick is his overview of the political economy of the media. Yes, he's right that 24 hour news creates a space for politics-related news which, in turn, heaps 'blanding' dynamics on party leaderships beholden to politics as brand management. Politicians who are a touch larger than life can help brighten up an otherwise dull segment and give the hacks something to report about. What Nick misses is the fascination broadcast journalists have with fringe politics. As urbane, educated and privileged professionals one of the reasons why, say, BBC journos cannot get enough of UKIP - and before 2010, the BNP - is because they cannot understand why anyone would vote for them. Their reluctance to challenge the stupidity of the far right is an incoherence brought on by being in the presence of an alien other. They cannot believe how anyone can sincerely hold ridiculous ideas. And so the constant free passes, of spiteful and hypocritical nonsense getting aired unchallenged in ways 'normal' politicians must envy.
Will holding Farage to account, as Nick urges, make much of a difference? It depends on the grounds you do so. The Mensch tactic from the right is an attempt to appeal to non-existant moderate 'kippers to think through how their populism is holding them back. The Cohen gambit is continue scrutinising and let their unhinged nastiness speak for themselves. As it happens, I don't disagree. Attacking UKIP for its racism and misogyny is right because it's right. It isn't, however, politically sufficient in and of itself. Neither Louise or Nick go far enough.
UKIP is a fundamentally different party from the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats. Even, to a degree, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. It is a protest party, a creature called to life by repeated lightning strikes of unchallenged xenophobia in the media. And what that megavoltage has reanimated are the decomposing bits of rotten Toryism. It has functioned as a challenger party to the Westminster consensus, as a party whose significance lies not in the Parliamentary representation it could possibly secure but the bloody nose it can give politics as a whole. Its core constituency of middle aged to elderly white men, which the party are trying to expand to working class non-Labour voters, are not interested in power as such but of asserting themselves against a world they don't like. They grew to maturity in a relatively benign environment and now lash out against its disappearance by pointing shaky, anxious fingers at immigrants, at the EU, at same sex marriage, at women. UKIP is a rightwing backlash at and denial of the realities of 21st century Britain and as such what is toxic for parties who aspire to govern is not for a party of protest. In fact, part of UKIP's attraction is that it will say what others won't say. By no means all UKIP voters will agree with council candidate William Henwood's attack on Lenny Henry, but at least they say what they believe. The gaffes, the racism, the poison, voters who are punting for UKIP have already factored this in.
Combating UKIP isn't a matter of adopting their policies, such as they exist, or seeing who can spend longer in the sewer. Lord Ashcroft found that former Tory UKIP supporters would return to the fold if their old party if they keep their promises and can show they have implemented policies that benefit them. In other words, it's about re-winning trust and rebuilding a sense of confidence in politics. Looking at what the Tories have to offer in 2015 - more low pay, more precarity, more debt-fuelled economic "growth" - it's not looking like Dave and Co will be taking Ashcroft's advice. Which leaves an opening to Labour. If inequality is the number one political issue - including among UKIP voters - then Labour has plenty to say and offer. It is Labour who should take on board Ashcroft's recommendations because, ultimately, unless politics tackles the deep economic insecurities that bedevil many, many millions of people, UKIP will carry on flourishing.