Godfrey Bloom’s slut shaming remarks are forcing UKIP to decide what sort of party it wants to be.
Unless you were living in a cave last week, you’d have seen or heard the furore over the latest comments by Godfrey Bloom at UKIP’s conference in central London. The MEP, long time friend and ally of party leader Nigel Farage, decided to add slut shaming to Bongo-Bongo on his offensiveness CV. One can only assume he’s in an on-running contest with Prince Philip to see who can be more inappropriate.
Few would defend Bloom’s comments, least of all a seemingly furious Nigel Farage who had his conference overshadowed by the Bloom story. But the incident highlights a dilemma for UKIP, particularly at this critical point in their development. Can they tighten up and become more professional without losing the very thing that makes them different?
UKIP take no small pride in the fact that they draw support from across the political spectrum. Under their banner they marshalled disgruntled golf-club former Tories from the Home Counties, blue collar workers from the towns of the North who feel abandoned by Labour, as well as libertarians and nationalists who had never been associated with a political party before. And crucially, many supporters wouldn’t identify themselves with any ideology.
It is this last group that are the most fascinating. Whereas the other branches of UKIP can be held together by euroscepticism, the non-ideological back UKIP largely because they are unlike the other parties. Much of the appeal of UKIP is precisely because they’re a bit rough around the edges, a bit more straight talking, and dare we say…a bit more fun. UKIP deliberately position themselves at juxtaposition to the other three parties, with their cookie-cutter MPs, opinion-phobic and out of touch. It’s no surprise that Boris Johnson is the most popular Tory, or that George Galloway invokes such strong opinions. These are characters, they have colour, flavour. The British public have spent twenty years on a bland diet of very beige, indistinguishable politicians. UKIP are something a bit different. They’re shaking up the menu, and people are responding well to it.
The problem for UKIP however, is that this approach can only take them so far. For every person attracted to UKIP for its roughish charm, another is put off, a seeing them as amateur and reckless. Certainly, some experience in local politics will help bolster their authority, but public gaffs demonstrate the painful need to become a little slicker and media savvy. The critical question is how to do this effectively? The party lacks both the resources and the will to keep a leash on senior figures and activists, and the internet makes it nigh on impossible for all party HQs to keep control over the message and the messengers. The only real option therefore, is to punish those guilty of bringing the party into disrepute, such as Bloom having the whip removed pending an investigation.
But in doing so, does the party risk losing its soul, at least in the eyes of its supporters? UKIP see themselves as different, beyond the reach of the politically correct Thought Police, and a bastion of free speech (as long as you don’t support Same Sex Marriage, obviously). How will the party faithful react if ‘Good Old Godders’ is seen as being sacrificed on the Altar of Public Relations? Thankfully for Farage, the party’s dander is up, and up enough to see past this. Having made better than expected gains in the local elections this year, the party stands a very good chance of coming first in next year’s European Elections. And critically, the 2014 local elections are on the same day as the European Elections, and party strategists are banking on the fact that it’s a rare person who votes for two different parties while in the same polling booth.
UKIP members are, slowly, coming to terms with the fact that if they want to play with the big boys, they need to adopt at least some of their norms. Fortunately for UKIP, the Bloom debacle came at the right time, with membership passing 30,000 and a sense that it’s shaping the national debate on immigration and Europe, its totems. Had it happened after a sudden slump in the polls, or a disappointing by-election result, the soul searching would have been much more wrenching. Though it may not seem it now, Bloom may have done UKIP a good turn in the long run.