When UKIP clashed with the Greens on BBC Question Time
This blogpost stems from a comment by former Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas MP (who follows Puffles :-) ) on Question Time when she sat next to UKIP leader Nigel Farage.
In this episode was also this point (source here)
which had the audience and lots of Twitter users left of the political centre praising this contribution. I immediately responded by asking why mainstream politicians were seemed unable to make such hard-hitting points that had the likes of Farage on the back foot.
[Updated to add: Turns out it was a man called Charlie Bloom]
After reading the quotation again from the man in the audience describing Mr Farage as ‘bombastic’, the first thing that came into my head was: ‘Where is Dead Ringers when you need it?’ …at the same time picturing them spoofing this track by Shaggy from the mid 1990s.
“They call me Mr. Bombastic/ I am fantastic, cross me in da ballots in da Euro…ro…ro
…sceptic, not a Euro fanatic, go watch me win da Euro…roez
Smooth…but not like Kilroy-Silk / I iz softie me, with my woollen quilt…”
…and so on. Oh come on – don’t say you’ve not seen the Gordon Brown rap!?!
How did we get to here?
Younger readers of my blog may not remember the big turning point for UKIP – the 2004 European Parliament Elections where, fortuitously for them, former Labour MP and TV talkshow host Robert Kilroy Silk found himself at the centre of a media firestorm over a column he wrote in a newspaper. The result was that the BBC dismissed him. He soon joined UKIP and fronted their 2004 European campaign (see their party election broadcast here). This was at a time when the Conservatives were still all over the place, having just sacked Iain Duncan Smith as leader, replacing him with Michael Howard – the minister that brought in the infamous Section 28 (See Sir Ian McKellen’s thoughts from the time here).
This was also the year after Tony Blair’s Iraq war – the first national poll beyond a local council level that the electorate got to have their say. A combination of a government still on the defensive over Iraq, very weak oppositions in Parliament (in part due to the strength of Blair’s majority as well as ineptitude & frequent changes of leadership in other parties) combined with an outside force fronted (although not led by) a familiar charismatic face from TV, UKIP made huge gains, from 3 to 12 MEPs. Once they had that profile, it became harder in principle not to give them media coverage on TV/radio.
An angry electorate?
There’s a disconnect. A massive one – and across several fields. Research from Ipsos-Mori and the Hansard Society puts it in blunt terms:
Which was one of the points Caroline Lucas was making. Given the anger stoked up over decades by the print media combined with the extended economic downturn, I’m not surprised that we are where we are. Even though some of the data today might indicate things are ‘getting back to normal’ from the perspective of many (including myself) it doesn’t feel that way. A jobless recovery anyone?
Why are the attacks from mainstream politicians and the media failing to land?
There are lots of different tactics that the media and mainstream politicians are using. In one sense, it’s fascinating to see them all being used at the same time, rather than in any planned or sequenced way. It’s like an entire fleet from the smallest gunboat to the largest battleship have fired in one direction all at the same time in a ‘hit and hope’ measure.
“What tactics are they using?”
Let’s list a few:
- Ignoring their presence altogether – Miliband and Cameron not taking part in Nick vs Nigel
- Directly confronting them in debate – as Clegg did when he challenged Farage
- Focusing on spoken remarks made by individual elected members – such as here
- Focusing on social media posts made by councillors and candidates – that are now too numerous to mention
- Focusing on the policies of the party – such as here
- Lampooning individuals – such as here
The question mainstream politicians and their advisers need to ask themselves is why their tactics and strategies are having such minimal impact. If any of the other mainstream parties had members exposed in this way, what would the impact be?
“And the answer is…?”
I get the feeling a significant part of the electorate has already decided they are going to give the political establishment a kicking – because they are angry. The answers as to why this is run much much deeper than standard political analysis in the mainstream media indicates.
If you look at the tabloid newspapers people buy, how many people say they do so primarily because of the political line taken by the publication? For some of the people I used to live and/or work with before my civil service days, it was “sport, jubblies and funny stories” (to paraphrase an old advert). Politics was a sideline. A few short snippets here and therer, along with the ‘read this and get angry’ stories was the only current affairs reading they did. This contrasts with the impression I get with say The Guardian/Independent readers which content-wise cover much more on current affairs. The nut that left-of-centre publications have failed to crack is how do you get an engaging mass-market publication that covers sport and entertainment while having a left-of-centre politics line? The Mirror has struggled with this for years.
Combine the recession/economic downturn along with years of drip-drip ‘read this and get angry and blame them over there’ headlines. Add this to a shrinking activist base in party politics to do that all-important face-to-face outreach and I’m not surprised some people have got to the stage where people turn away from the main parties. It’s as if in some quarters the strength of feeling has got to such a level that it doesn’t really matter what ‘broadcast style messages’ (and I include this blog in that category) are put to them, they made up their mind ages ago.
“So…how should their opponents respond?”
It depends on which ‘opponent’ you happen to be – though I try to avoid ‘shoulds’ as a matter of principle!
In the case of The Greens and The Liberal Democrats, they appear to be going head-first. Nick Clegg made it the core theme for his election campaign – see their election broadcast here. Strategically and tactically I can see why he did this – the Liberal Democrats have nothing to lose with this approach. They know that their support has shrunk back to a smaller number of strongholds (such as Cambridge) since joining the Coalition. Also, Greens aside, none of the major national parties are campaigning on a pro-EU slate.
In the case of Labour, their leadership has been depressingly silent on the EU. Depressingly because there’s potentially a great and inspiring theme they could run with – one that the Green Party seem to be far ahead of the game on both in their message and also in joined-up campaigning with their sister parties over the Channel. The reason why Labour and their European sister parties in the socialist group are not teaming up is explained here. Online, the focus of Labour activists has been on both remarks from UKIP candidates as well as on policies around the NHS and workers rights – both of which they are on stronger ground – in particular with their trade union core. But can they get their vote out?
In the case of the Conservatives, in East Anglia they are still recovering from the shockwave of the 2013 county council elections where they lost political control of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk County Councils due to UKIP winning seats that were previously safe Conservative ones. And as Eric Pickles said in Cambridge recently, the Conservatives want them back. But just how united are the party behind its leadership?
“Aren’t those standing up to volunteer and campaign for UKIP doing (party politics aside) the sort of thing you’re campaigning for – ie democratic renewal?”
That’s what is so important about Caroline Lucas’s message. For ***anyone*** to put their names forward for election and do something to get publicity for that election (irrespective of your chances of being elected) takes an incredible amount of courage for ordinary people. I’m speaking from experience here. There are a stack load of worries, fears and anxieties you have to overcome in order to get your name on that ballot paper. In one sense, I couldn’t even do that – Puffles is on it. For many of the people standing for and/or campaigning for UKIP, you can’t just put it down to bigotry and dismiss them. That simply slams the door in the faces of a group of people, leaves the problems unheard and unsolved and pushes people towards the parties you oppose.
As several people tweeted, their party’s appeal is crossing beyond the traditional ‘angry Tory core’. What we’ve not seen until very recently is them trying to target Labour’s core vote in the way the far right did in 2004 and 2009 before they imploded. What will the impact of UKIP be in Labour heartlands? Perhaps one thing for an academic study is what happened to the votes for the far-right? Where did they go? As for UKIP, will their 2014 voters stick around or go? (See here for one view on the LSE’s blog)
“Is there hope?”
That’s what worries me about mainstream politics today: The absence of hope – and the contrast with 1996/97. It’s one of the reasons why personally I find the Greens’ European campaign the most attractive as a citizen with a vote at the European elections. They seem to be the only party publicly standing and campaigning with their European sister parties. I don’t get the sense that Labour or the Liberal Democrats are ‘in harmony’ with their sister parties as far as their public profile goes. It’s as if those two are part of groups in the European Parliament where as the Green Party in the UK give the feeling they are part of a much wider movement across Europe.
The rise of anti-UKIP protests
Scotland in particular has been leading the way – 300 protestors turning out to greet Farage on a pre-election visit. This is one of the interesting questions (that I don’t know the answer to) following the rise of, and the regular media coverage of UKIP: To what extent will people be mobilised to oppose their rise by fear of and opposition to what UKIP stand for? Have enough activists been mobilised to persuade enough people to vote for other parties, thus reducing the impact of the party at the ballot box? There might be lots of social media chatter opposing them, but as I’ve found out the hard way, turning sympathetic social media chatter into actions is a damn sight harder.