Ashley Perks considers the significance of UKIP’s successes and compares them with France’s Front National.
There’s many a slip betwixt pint-glass and lip, and it is not UKIP MEP and leader, Nigel Farage’s enthusiastic supping of Real Ale between TV and radio interviews or for the grateful pleasure of a pack of paparazzi that will be able to prevent that. Vacuuming up the apparently remarkable number of votes in local and council election results on Thursday, Farage has been conveniently clowning around for the media’s and his activists’ delectation.
As newspapers and political punters on TV and radio platforms fall over themselves to ‘explain’ the ‘extraordinary success’ of UKIP, winning 139 council seats and coming second to Labour in the South Shields by-election which, as one of the latter’s strongholds, was never in doubt. The relegation of the Tories to 3rd place again and another wipe-out for the Lib Dems (remember Corby), has excited political junkies and prompted Farage to rehash his ‘Fourth Party’ hyperbole.
Firstly, the percentage of actual eligible voters who turned out was just 31% – 10 points down on the figures for the 2009 council elections. This is reflective of the contempt in which politicians are generally held and the malaise affecting the whole issue of politics in the UK generally, but in England in particular. It is also important to note that, while UKIP can be justifiably cock-a-hoop (and very surprised) at their haul of 25%, that does mean that 75% of those who voted were not so beguiled or inclined.
Secondly: Confusion; anger; despair; disillusionment and disgust are all relevant adjectives to describe the large number of ‘normal’ people’s feelings up and down the land. Whether as opponents of the Coalition and its perceived aloof, condescending, out-of-touch and out-of-date approach to managing the country – not to mention the pain, distress, dispossession and displacement being experienced by the low-paid in work and the starvation levels of real benefits available to the unemployed and the disabled – or traditional (older) Tory voters revolted by their sense that Head Boy, David Cameron, and his ex Eton cronies are letting them down, that England is going to the dogs on his watch, that Brussels bothers us more than our own government, and that our towns and cities are crawling with immigrants.
Thirdly: As Labour has not yet made its case for being trusted with our moribund economy, and the Liberal Democrats have not only reneged on all their 2010 promises, but have prostituted themselves under the aphrodisiac-influence of power in government under a dominant Tory master, a mid-term protest vote was inevitable. If not the usual suspects, then who? The Greens? Too fuzzy; too much off-the-wall Brighton baggage. The only incredibly credible alternative is UKIP. For now.
The sudden surge in support for a right of right-wing party with no discernible policies other than scaremongering about the EU, the euro and the uninhibited influx of immigrants is therefore not so surprising, really. It is tempting to compare UKIP to the break away ‘fourth party’ that was the SDP and indeed many pundits are. Look what happened to them.
More disturbing is the comparison to the 2002 Presidential Election in France. In April of that year and for the first time anywhere in European or International politics, an extreme right-wing candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National, made it through to the second round having won 20% of the first round vote. The two-round system in France allows the electorate to nominate first, and eliminate second. The possibility of protest voting is that much stronger then, and serves as a warning to the mainstream parties that the people will bloody their noses if they don’t buck up.
The Front National had become a much more powerful force than it had been hitherto. Even so, previously to 2002 they had been polling around 15% of the vote in national elections and 15-20% in local elections. (They are very strong in the south east). Much as UKIP has done now, they regularly drew in disaffected older voters nostalgic for a France long gone, fierce nationalists (‘patriots’) as well as a substantial working class endorsement from a sector tired of immigrants ‘taking our jobs and social housing’, ‘clogging up the health service’ and ‘draining the benefit budget’. Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?
There’s more: The Front National in France (and indeed its equivalent parties in other countries) is more powerful than it once was; supporters believe that French jobs should be reserved for French citizens and that all jobless immigrants should be deported. They are hostile towards the dominant political parties, immigrants, integration with Europe, homosexuals, intellectuals, and reproductive choice for women – especially abortion. The Front supports the reinstatement of capital punishment, and retains as an ideal the ‘nuclear family,’ consisting of a father (the breadwinner), a mother (the home-maker) and their children. These are very much in line with UKIP’s fundamental policies. Indeed, along with the Front National now led by Le Pen fille, Marine, and with two MPs in the Assemblée - one of whom is Marine’s daughter – after Grillo in Italy, 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.
So,on 21st April 2002 France held a presidential election. Nearly 35% of the electorate didn’t vote, and of those who did vote, the majority voted for minor candidates, like Noel Mamère (Green) or Jean-Marie Le Pen (The Front National). It seemed that the French electorate wanted to protest against the two big candidates – Lionel Jospin (socialist) and Jacques Chirac (republican) – who had almost the same solutions to the most important issues (such as crime), and had mounted lacklustre campaigns which didn’t appear to address the important issues.
At the close of the polls in the first round of voting, Jospin had won 16.07% of the votes, Chirac 19.67%, and Le Pen 17.02% of the votes. Some supporters of Le Pen were working class, as always, but this time he had support from the middle classes too. Thus, Le Pen and Chirac progressed to fight it out in the second round of voting. Many people in France, and worldwide, were afraid because a man like Le Pen was so close to being in power, and there was a massive mobilisation by students and the media against Le Pen. During the second round Chirac won 82.21% of the votes, and so conclusively won the election.
Chirac won, not on the basis of popular support, but by the wake-up call sounded at Le Pen’s first round positioning that had alarmed the electorate. The warning was heeded and France has largely been able to keep the Front National at bay, notably because they have such a confused, illogical and impractical series of economic policies. Jobs, immigration, the nuisance of Brussels, the perils of a permissive and pernicious modernism and so on are great rabble-rousing issues; yet what matters most is the standard of our economic life, the sense that we continue to prosper. Not for nothing did Harold Wilson promise that his policies “will not affect the pound in your pocket”. In the end it boils down to the old adage: “Follow the money”. The more we feel we have, the happier we are. UKIP have nothing in the cupboard with which to so reassure us.
UKIP, like the Front National, are important and should be taken seriously and treated with respect; we need them in modern democracies. Demonising them (as was and is done to the Le Pens) or mocking them as David Cameron has come to rue since his “fruitcakes and closet racists” dismissal of UKIP, does not work. They must be allowed to be the catalyst that draws out and unites the restless, the reactionary and the disgruntled on the Right, much as the Communists did in the past on the Left. They are necessary to the health of our body politic due to their effectiveness in lancing the boils that pustulate from time to time. Especially half-way through an unpopular, unpleasant and barely elected government.
Follow Ashley on Twitter: @StRemeze
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