by Giles Goodall and Petros Fassoulas, European Movement.* All UKIP has to offer is mud.
UKIP’s relative success in the English local elections and South Shields by-election this week has met with predictable reactions across the political spectrum: from copycat politics and jealousy on the Tory right, to hand-wringing and disappointment on the centre left. But while UKIP has succeeded in hoovering up disenchanted Tories by the thousand, its appeal is clearly much broader. In fact, the rise of UKIP’s populist anti-politics replicates a pattern played out across Europe since the crisis hit, from the Danish People’s Party to Italy’s Beppe Grillo. Ironically, with UKIP, Britain may now be joining the European mainstream.
Early indications show that while most UKIP support was lent by former Tories, sizeable chunks came from working class Labour and ‘none of the above’ ex-Lib Dems too. Their strong showing in South Shields shows that UKIP are far broader than a bunch of “retired half colonels, living on the edge of Salisbury Plain,” as Nigel Farage himself put it. Professor John Curtice reports that Farage’s motley crew have done particularly well in areas with fewer graduates than average, more pensioners and more people with a strong religious identity.
All this makes UKIP far harder to pin down than its hallmark anti-Europeanism would suggest. Doubtless, immigration was a strong motivator, and some may have turned to the party in opposition to David Cameron’s pragmatism on issues like equal marriage. But it’s likely that Farage’s own brand of policy-lite pub talk has attracted at least as much support. Like Boris Johnson, his carefully crafted image as an anti-politician is the key to his success – and policies his weakest card. The fact that his “policies” rarely get confronted and scrutinised by the other parties and he and his party were ignored for far too long by the political elites gave him an open terrain to develop and spread his message unchallenged.
Throw in a few more ingredients – economic pessimism, an unloved coalition and an underwhelming opposition – and the scenario played out this week looks more like what has been happening across Europe. After Grillo, Greece’s Golden Dawn, the True Finns and the Dutch Freedom Party, UKIP is the latest in a line of European populist parties to taste electoral success. Led by charisma, unburdened by the responsibilities of government and driven by economic insecurity, they are the easy option for the angry, the fearful and the dispossessed.
The result possess a challenge for mainstream parties in the UK (and across Europe) to stop playing politics on issues like immigration, Europe, unemployment. It signals the time to take on those that employ populist messages to exploit people’s anxieties. Rather than dancing on UKIP’s tune, all 3 parties must draw a line in the sand and start pushing back, straight into UKIP’s fog-infused territory of opportunism, myths and scaremongering.
Electoral success for mainstream parties does not reside in copying UKIP’s discourse. Lest we forget that 75% of those that showed up to vote did not find an appeal in UKIP’s opportunism and divisive rhetoric. Not to mention all those that did not even go to cast their vote in the ballot box. There is a sizeable majority in the middle of the political spectrum that desires responsible, honest policies. They are thirsty for answers to the global economic crisis and their everyday problems. But when they go up to the well and they find it dry of water, they will drink mud.
*This article appeared on euroblog 4 May. Reproduced here with permission. The European Movement UK is Britain’s longest standing pro-European organization, campaigning for decades to inform the debate around the benefits of EU membership. A not-for-profit, non-governmental organization, it is funded exclusively by its members. Visit www.euromove.org.uk to see how you can help keep Britain in the EU.
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