Hidden among the festivities in the run-up to Christmas was Rozanne Duncan’s expulsion from the United Kingdom Independence Party. Cause for cheer should not be in short supply. The dismissal of the Thanet District Council member came in the wake of highly racist comments caught by a BBC exposé which is due to be aired this month. Freedom of speech is an unalienable right, yet that privileged status entails a responsibility that is all too often abused.
People harbouring such outdated views should not be equipped with any sort of platform, and newly-formed political parties, susceptible to permeation by oddballs, have a duty to keep them at bay. The occasional breach is difficult to avoid, but let us be under no illusions, even if Nigel Farage claims it is just a “handful” of racists: UKIP’s rise in support has run parallel to the decline of the British National Party. By Farage’s own admission, UKIP has taken “a third of the BNP vote,” meaning that no one “has done more to damage the BNP” than UKIP”. These boasts belittle Farage’s supposed ban on recruiting ex-BNP members: “I’ve made it clear we want no truck with BNP types at all.” UKIP has patently assumed some of the BNP’s following, and therefore it is almost certain that racism is a lot rifer in UKIP than Farage would care to admit.
Weeding out these types must be an active effort. To demonstrate UKIP’s current passivity, we can distinguish between Ms Duncan’s episode and the recent investigation into the CIA’s behaviour post 9/11. The mere existence of thorough self-examination within the CIA, while obviously useless in making amends for the torture it serves to reveal, at least represents a concerted quest to establish the truth where there was not a necessary or lawful prerogative to do so; an active effort. Conversely, UKIP, with no obligation to expose their racists, reacted, waiting for concrete evidence instead of seeking it, and only then ridding themselves of Ms Duncan.
Most fascinating to examine is the official line used by UKIP for its decision; Ms Duncan was expelled for “jaw-dropping” assertions that would “bring the party into disrepute”. Literally, disrepute means the state of being held in low esteem by the public. It is worth wondering why we hold UKIP in any esteem whatsoever when, in light of the BNP’s influence, it is likely that a good deal more of the party faithful nurture convictions comparable to Ms Duncan’s.
The public’s disbelieving attitude stems from an emerging obsession that has taken hold of British politics: the grip of individual politics. These days, backbench MPs wield ever-diminishing clout in the nation’s mind. Public scrutiny is solely geared to zone in on the figures at the top. Ferocious and unrelenting, best emphasised by the furore over the mechanics of the forthcoming TV debates, the public gaze now falls exclusively on party leaders. Reductive as it is to claim that ‘it makes no difference who you vote for’ or that ‘they’re all same’, there is certainly a kernel of truth behind such thinking. To the naked eye, all we have is white, middle-aged males born into privilege; superficially there is not much to choose from. To compensate, we yearn to plunge into their personal lives, inventing profound tangible distinctions that will justify how we vote.
Joey Barton’s analogy of choosing between “four really ugly girls”, deplorably sexist as it may be, captures the phenomenon; no longer party policy against party policy, it is Farage vs David Cameron vs Ed Miliband vs Nick Clegg. Our need for differentiation is manifest. There was no new episode of Sherlock this Christmas, but that was seamlessly replaced by Steph and Dom meet Nigel Farage, a cosy interview to get to know the real Nigel Farage in the form of a “wine-fuelled evening at their plush B&B”. In addition, we have become accustomed to a new obsession with the variety of blue shirt that David Cameron wears on his summer holiday, while Ed Miliband’s choice of Christmas card photo has somehow taken on broad political connotations, with the Daily Mirror forging a link between the “criticism for struggling to connect with ordinary voters” and the “personal touch” on show as the “casually dressed” Leader of the Opposition helps his sons to craft their own cards. As for Nick Clegg, Piers Morgan once elicited his confirmation that he had slept with “no more than 30 women”.
Why do we care about any of this fundamentally irrelevant information? Because it provides a growing portion of the basis upon which we decide our vote. More than ever before, a war of personality rages above the battle of policy. In short, the hue of top our Prime Minister opts for on the beach is now substantially more important than his view on the changing hue of our seas. In this sense, given his often applauded policies but his calamitous personality, Ed Miliband will likely win the battle but lose the war in May.
This trend suits UKIP perfectly. Blueprinted only by the ‘Gang of Four’ that oversaw the rise and fall of the Social Democratic Party in 1980s, UKIP is unique in its complete subjugation of policy to the personal; its preference for style over substance. That is, Nigel Farage is UKIP. Winston McKenzie, UKIP’s Commonwealth spokesman, resumes the configuration neatly: “Farage is one man, and we’re his army and that’s what it’s all about.”
At the heart of the UKIP bandwagon is an ability to keep its rhetoric running through Farage. Conservative defects are always welcome as evidence for claims of momentum, but it must be noted how silent Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell have been in the past few months. They have proved a handy statistic but remain unexploited. Strange runaways they are; jumping ship but, besides Carswell’s editorial in last week’s Mail On Sunday, largely failing to bemoan the decks from which they have fled.
In part their bizarre escape is due to the aforementioned tendency of backbenchers to occupy an increasingly inconspicuous position. Nevertheless, Farage never intended to have these two pour scorn on their former party. He is well aware that the best way to continue to eat away at Conservative and, increasingly, Labour support is to keep banging the immigration drum, as Boris Johnson put it on Newsnight, in “plain Anglo-Saxon words that readily correspond to some object in the universe”. Farage’s stranglehold will not be everlasting. Uncertainty abounds in terms of how new recruits Reckless or Carswell might be redeployed, especially if the party underperforms at the general election and the behemoths of donorship that keep the fledging party afloat – Stuart Wheeler, Paul Sykes and Richard Desmond – begin to ponder a change in formation.
Yet, for now, the Farage brand is potent; compared with 50% of Tories for Cameron, 50% of Liberal Democrats for Clegg and just 35% of Labour for Miliband, a whopping 92% of UKIP supporters are satisfied with Farage’s performance as leader. They know he will hold his own against any opposition on a personality basis, even if his policies, which include improving traffic via a reduction in immigration, evidently do not stack up. It is therefore unsurprising that a recent string of scandals and gaffes have left UKIP reeling somewhat, for they threaten both to divert attention away from the man at the top and shine light on gaping policy voids.
In addition to Ms Duncan’s aforementioned comments, the star of UKIP’s 2014 Election Broadcast Andre Lampitt proposed that Africans should “kill themselves”. The candidate in Enfield William Henwood called on Lenny Henry to emigrate to a “black country”, and prospective MP Kerry Smith has resigned after secret recordings emerged in which he described gay people as “fucking disgusting old poofters”. Little wonder that UKIP’s chairman has pleaded “just don’t” to members thinking of becoming active on social media. In a political landscape that favours style over substance and leaders over parties, this plays into Farage’s hands. Remember how the focus after Emily Thornberry’s tweet during the Rochester and Strood by-election became Miliband’s handling of the backlash, rather than what the ordeal said about Labour?
Technology has not been kind to UKIP, perhaps unsurprisingly for a party that would welcome going back to the future, and we recently saw Farage get a little hot under the collar as he dismissed a UKIP parody app as “risible” and “pathetic”. ‘UKIK’, a game devised by students at Canterbury Academy, sees ‘Nicholas Fromage’ kick immigrants over the White Cliffs of Dover. In fairness, Farage has never upgraded his dislike of immigrants from theoretical to physical. All the same, the teenagers’ ridiculing of UKIP immigration policy represents a step that the leaders of the UK cannot summon the courage to take.
Such is the cowardice that Cameron, Miliband and Clegg display as they stumble along, reacting to problems posed by Farage, they have never launched an offensive on the shortcomings of Farage’s wild immigration claims. In their persistent subservience as slaves to Farage their master, the three ‘main’ party leaders have failed to take advantage of the hard, cold evidence that highlights the unequivocally positive elements of immigration. Why did the UCL study from November receive only cursory attention? It declared, in no uncertain terms, that immigrants pay 64% more in tax than they receive in benefits, endow the country with productive capital worth £6.8 billion are largely skilled labour with 62% of those from EU-15 countries possessing a university degree.
Those raw numbers should be reiterated to the extent that Farage seeks to heap every sorrow imaginable on immigration. Of course, we must have a balanced argument, and immigration should not be allowed to “spiral out of control”. But, at the moment, as flimsy as their line may be, only one side is arguing their corner, and so that side is winning. Every story of a community that has been torn apart by an immigrant influx that refuses to assimilate can be countered with a tale of a community revitalised by a hard-working group of immigrants who have stirred the multicultural melting pot that is the United Kingdom. To pick out but one from the millions, how about the late Manohar Lal Sehgal MBE, after immigrating in the 1950s, whose clothing business became so successful that he ended up with enough money to fund scholarships at Northumbria University?
The only way to beat Farage is not to pander, is not to ignore, but to confront. Given the chunk of UKIP support that is prone to giving away their penchant for discrimination, he will continue to promote a solo approach which relegates evidence-based politics behind popular rhetoric and spectacle. Healthy debate amounts to a discussion guided by proven information rather than inflated stereotypes. To this end, an oppositional narrative, born out of facts, is urgently required. Seeing as the leaders will not summon the courage to front any campaign, we must be grateful that Peter Mandelson, Ken Clarke and Danny Alexander have agreed to become joint presidents of the new pro-European movement: ‘British Influence’. Thanks to this development, the full facts can now be heard, restoring equilibrium to the debate on immigration that has, for all too long, remained depressingly one-sided.