Friday, 23 May 2014

The impressive Nigel Farage

As the mainstream parties are licking their wounds after bruising local election results in England, the leader of UKIP, the ubiquitous Nigel Farage is enjoying the limelight of the media. And this is even before the results of the European elections are made public on Sunday, a set of results that are bound to make Labour, Conservatives and LibDems look like medium sized parties.

Enjoying the media frenzy - Nigel Farage

So, what is the appeal of Farage? Although disentangling the motivations of voters at elections can be a tricky business, Farage has already offered a clue. It's the language. And I think he is largely correct.

Let's first of all look at his policies (and yes, they are 'his policies' since the party is more or less a one man show). These policies range from the hard right (shut the doors to all immigrants) to the hard left (milk and honey for everyone, whilst cutting public expenditure). The fascinating thing about Farage's policies is however that there are very few indeed. Farage has been immensely talented at selling soundbites as policies.

Take immigration. Well, governments of all colour have tried to reduce immigration with little effect. Even if Farage would be residing in Number 10 tomorrow, he would still need to go through a referendum on exiting Europe, since it is Britain's membership of Europe that produces most of Britain's immigrants. He may or may not win such a referendum. The fact is, he wont be in Number 10 any time soon. So he has no way of delivering this 'policy'.

But there is also light at the end of the tunnel for the established political parties. I have argued before that it is exactly the insignificance of local and European elections that allow voters to vote UKIP without any consequences. Europe and immigration are important themes, yet neither of them are high up on the list of priorities for decision making of voters in national elections, as Michael Howard and William Hague discovered when they ran 'anti-immigration' campaigns in 2005 and 2001 respectively. Immigration and Europe are the sort of topics that make for heated debates, but not for solid votes at general elections.

So, Labour and Conservatives can take comfort from the fact that the local and European elections this week probably marked the high point for UKIP. Farage may be able to translate his newly gained council representation into one or two seats at Westminster, yet the most damage UKIP will do at the general elections in 2015 is to split the small c conservative vote in some areas. And this is provided the newly elected councillors across England are not falling over each other (as the Greens for example did in Brighton). In essence, UKIP is a movement, rather than a political party, so the loyalty of party members to their party is fairly weak.

So, what about language? This is where the real challenge lies for the mainstream parties. Farage is famous for his straight talk and it is nothing less than painful to listen to Miliband, Clegg and others to try to downplay the UKIP challenge. It is exactly this waffle that gets voters angry. So why do Miliband and others do not speak their mind?

The real reason is that there is nothing they can say about many of the topics that UKIP has broached. Mainstream politicians are very wary of discussing something in public for which they potentially have no answers. The hard truth is that there is no answer for European immigration. Geographical mobility is a cornerstone of the edifice of European Union and there is nothing any politician can do about it, short of leaving Europe.

So, instead of acknowledging this fact and talking openly about it, they waffle their way through and hope no one notices. This Thursday, about a quarter of all voters have just called their bluff.

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