Yesterday, Mark Reckless won UKIP’s second seat in Westminster.
As ever, the press has made much of this success. The Independent claimed it was a “humiliating defeat” for Cameron, while the BBC’s Nick Robinson declared UKIP had proved it could “take on and defeat the entire Conservative Party machine”.
These days it feels like UKIP is never out of the news, as though they are an interesting political movement worthy of commentary. At the risk of ruining a good yarn with the truth, shall we take a look at some facts?
UKIP was founded in 1991 and has had 8 leaders in the last 20 years. Of its MEPs, two are ex-Conservatives, one has been expelled from the party for not being right wing enough, and two are in prison for fraud. Of its three members of the House of Lords, two are defectors from the Conservatives. Its only member of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly is a man who was expelled from the Ulster Unionists. Its two Westminster MPs were both originally elected as Conservative Party candidates.
Forgive me, but this is hardly the track record of a political power house set to take Westminster by storm. UKIP has yet to win a single elected seat in any assembly in the United Kingdom with a home grown candidate. Enjoy a Miss Piggy style flounce from the political stage but don’t want to give up your seat? No worries, just switch allegiance. UKIP will take you in. They’ll take anyone in, since in over 20 years they haven’t managed a single home grown success.
This failure is due in large part to the most absurd set of policies: a mixture of nonsense immigration rules (all immigrants must have private health care and can only send their children to private schools) lunatic tax reforms (they want to abolish NI at a cost of £50bn per year) and anti-climate change measures (they will reverse all fiscal assistance for green energy). Their manifesto is shot through with covert racism in the “they come over here and take our jobs and women” style, and several of their higher profile members espouse overtly homophobic views.
What UKIP does have is a disproportionate amount of attention in the press. Never in the history of UK politics has such an unsuccessful party been given so much air time. Their policies are unpopular, un-costed and ill-conceived, and they appear both racist and homophobic. Their prevalence in the press cannot, therefore, be a reflection of their popularity. So why are they there?
The answer lies in boredom. If I vote Cameron or Miliband, will I really notice a difference? There is a real sense at the moment that to move from Conservative to Labour is to do no more than change the wallpaper. So now we are casting around for someone to shake up the political agenda and give journalists something to discuss. Let’s face it, they can hardly spend four years gawping moon-faced into a camera, droning on about some middle class white dude in a grey suit who just did something indistinguishable from last week’s middle class white dude in a grey suit.
Trouble is, political firebrands are a little difficult to find just now. The Green Party? Too “one policy”. The Liberal Democrats? Too Tory prison bitch. Alas the Monster Raving Loonies are no more. So we have scraped the bottom of the barrel and come up with Nigel Farage – a public school educated ex City man, whose pretence that he is a beer drinking fag smoking man of the people is cringe-making in the extreme. But since someone pulled his knuckles off the floor and gave him some PR training, we can put him on Question Time and TV debates, as though sitting him next to other politicians might make him slightly less bonkers.
The thing is, it doesn’t. Instead, much like anything in politics, if you say it often enough people will start to believe it’s true. The more often we put Farage into serious mainstream press, the more he will start to feel like a credible alternative; and he is not a credible alternative. He is only there because we are looking for a devil’s advocate. Someone, or something, to take a new view on political events, so that we no longer have to watch Tory and Labour slogging it out like two half dead tennis players who can’t get off the base line. Farage is the entertainment. He’s a political fluffer. He is the joke story in the middle of a dull news day.
For goodness sake, don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s actually saying something helpful.