Tuesday 1 September 2015

Can UKIP Overcome the Doldrums?

Remember UKIP? You know, that garishly-branded so-called people's party that has form on the privatisation of the NHS, massive tax cuts for the mega wealthy, and thinks things like the minimum wage and maternity pay should be at an employer's discretion? Reminding us they're very real and very relevant, UKIP have made their first headlines since Farage's farrago over the party's leadership all the way back in May. They will, apparently, be launching their own 'no' campaign for EU withdrawal independent of the others competing for its official mantle. After a period of much welcome respite from Nigel Farage and their putrid politics, can this turn see them reclaim the headlines and the axis of political debate?

The biggest problem with UKIP is their populism. It's their main strength and greatest weakness. As a barely coherent us vs themism UKIP is, among other things, a direct outgrowth of decades of hateful, empty-headed rabble rousing by the press and a failure by mainstream politicians to challenge it. Au contraire, with some notable exceptions most have happily gone along with it. Despite this the (right wing) press rhetoric grants our MPs no slack. They are clueless but dishonest schemers who want to destroy Britain. The EU is the symbol of their elitism, and immigrants - whether EU citizens, workers from outside of it, or refugees fleeing war, terror, and dictatorship - a visible manifestation of the plot to bury our national character under waves of migrants. Of course, a cursory analysis of UKIP and its chief backers reveal nothing more than another rich man's scapegoating tool. Its rhetoric is populist, but its politics helps them in their ceaseless struggle against us.

The problem with UKIP's populism, which is undoubtedly deeply felt by the millions who vote for them, is its seasonal character. If the EU or immigration are dominating the headlines, their support swells. If not, well, take this summer for instance. Were it not for the Corbyn surge, the only news story would have been the appalling scenes from Calais and the Mediterranean. Immigration would have dominated the Labour leadership contest, candidates would be shadow boxing with UKIP, and the purples' poll ratings would have likely recovered. Instead, despite immigration registering as the number one concern and despite a couple of months of hostile headlines, the Labour left's insurgent populism appears to be killing them. That and/or an evaporation of media coverage of all things kippy thanks to the very same. The local council by-election results since June appear to bear this out. For three months on the trot not only have their vote shares and averages declined, for the first time in a long time they've persistently lagged behind the Liberal Democrats (despite standing in more seats) and in August were out-organised and out-polled by the Greens - another first.

Whatever one might think of Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour Party led by him and equipped with a left programme makes for a more convincing populist outfit than an awkward melange of city slickers, anti-politics types, and more-or-less open racists. So for UKIP to properly come back, they need to make the political weather again. Banging on about immigration, as Farage signaled this morning, has worked before. No doubt UKIP's bigwigs are hoping that there is ripe political territory here again. As far as they're concerned, if Jeremy wins Labour will be abandoning this debate entirely allowing the purples to move in and hoover up those disenchanted voters in the northern strongholds. Perhaps, it just depends how Jeremy's attempt to reframe the debate goes - especially with a policy suggestion of extra resources for areas where new populations tend to settle. It will be interesting to see - should it get the chance to be implemented - whether these positive proposals are able to meet the relentless "throw 'em out, close the borders" bigotry of UKIP.

The second, coming back to the EU referendum, is their proposal for an independent, Farage-led, UKIP-branded campaign. This is a politically astute move for a couple of reasons. Whether Dave will let his cabinet members agitate for a no vote remains to be seen, but there was always the danger that the prominence afforded leading Tories and Tory backbenchers using kipper-type language and indulging the sorts of scaremongering they've cornered the political market in could actually leech away some of UKIP's support back to the Tories. Remember, a good chunk of their present membership were signed up thanks to Dave's piloting of equal marriage through the Commons. A sign that the Tories are going right, or at least are seen to be comfortable holding within it plenty of right wingers, might mean curtains. Then again, being independent of the official campaign is no guarantee this won't happen. It just means that Farage can hold forth on whatever he sees fit and, perhaps, set the political tone for the No campaign in general. UKIP has also drawn lessons from Labour's Scottish calamity. While anti-EU Tories might gain from a touch of populism of their own, UKIP could lose out if they're perceived to be too chummy with establishment figures. If he's as smart as he thinks he is, Farage would do well to avoid sharing platforms with Philip Hammond, IDS, and the rest of the eurosceptic bunch. What UKIP are hoping for is that continued immigration concerns and generalised antipathy to official politics will ensure the party profits the most from sticking up for Britain. They're hoping for their SNP moment, whether the referendum goes their way or not.

The question is can they pull it off? I'd like to say I trust the good sense of the British electorate, but I don't. That said they are in a weak position right now and the cards are stacked against them, but all it takes is for the seasons to change again for them to spring back - and the complacency of their opponents.

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