The history of UKIP is a fascinating one, and I urge all of you who have not yet read Revolt on the Right by Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin to do so. It recalls UKIP’s beginnings as a sort of techy, academic bunch founded by LSE history professor Alan Sked and follows its evolution towards being a libertarian sanatorium for Eurosceptic Tories. It was written just as the move from that mould to its current one, in which Farage says things like he couldn’t get to a meeting because the M4 is clogged with immigrants, was in mid-flow.
The direction of travel towards things like having a “chinky” being fine has been by conscious design. UKIP compared levels of disgruntlement at the amount of immigration into Britain over the past decade with interest in the EU, good or bad, as an issue, and discovered that the former was much more salient. So, they figured, better to run on an anti-immigration ticket as the most important thing was to win the Euro 2014 election to demonstrate that a vote for UKIP is not a wasted one come May 2015. After all, convincing people that the EU is a bad thing and that leaving will take care of the immigration problem is a positive towards the ultimate goal, i.e. winning a referendum on the subject and leaving – isn’t it?
I don’t think so, actually. One of the most important things Eurosceptics needed to do during this parliament in order to set the stage for a win in an In/Out referendum, was to convince the majority of British people that Euroscepticism is a mainstream concern. That it isn’t just the preserve of a bunch of right-wing lunatics and has a direct impact on their daily lives. The way things are going at present is precisely in the opposite direction, as UKIP try to be more and more populist.
A grave error that is often made in politics is to think that “populist” equates to “vote winner”. So yes, anti-immigration sentiments are populist, in that a lot of people are concerned about it. It isn’t necessarily a vote winner in all scenarios as a result. I’ll use the AV referendum as the most pertinent example of this.
On the Yes to AV campaign, we decided early on that we would ride the “anti-politics” wave to victory. We eschewed the notion of having politicians as spokespeople; better, we thought, to run a “people’s campaign” and attempt to equate people’s lack of satisfaction with Westminster with a new voting system. Needless to say it didn’t work, and one of the reasons is that when trying to decide on a point of politics, say a national referendum, people do look to politicians as a lead. It’s like lawyers – many a joke is made at their expense, but if you need to win a case in court you do call on their expertise. So for AV, we had some celebrities and some people you’d never heard of, plus the occasional Lib Dem MP. No to AV had David Cameron and John Reid. I can see the rationale in the choice the nation made. Anti-politics was populist, but not ultimately a vote winner.
For “Get Out of Europe”, the choice could be even starker: if Cameron campaigns for Stay In, that would mean every sane politician in the country would be backing In, and the Out team would be Farage and his UKIP band, the extreme right of the Tory parliamentary party and some far-left agitators. I don’t think anymore need be said.
This is exactly why Farage had to use the period between 2010 and 2015 to build up himself and UKIP into a mainstream brand that could be trusted. That was always going to be a tall order – perhaps impossible. But the exact opposite having occurred may have gotten UKIP huge headlines and Farage a lot of visibility, but just may be fatal when the real contest happens.