When the first few members of my extended family, a year or so ago, told me that they were planning to vote for Ukip, I wasn’t so much shocked as surprised. I have never regarded Ukip as being dangerous or sinister—a touch eccentric certainly, but nothing worse. The gathering of political momentum by Farage and his party, and last night the crowning of its first Westminster MP, makes clear that this surprising, eccentric party has a substantial appeal. This summer, Prospect was the first to reveal what Ukip was planning for its 2015 election manifesto, but the party’s fortunes were in the ascendant long before that. Ukip has an appeal. But if it’s not the policies, what is it?
A stock response to Ukip’s rise has been that the party represents a sort of anti-politics—that the unalloyed ghastliness of the MPs expenses scandal, combined with the fiscal tightening of the Osborne Treasury have combined to rouse in the electorate’s collective consciousness an instinctive revulsion for politics. Casting around for a way to express their disgust, they chose Ukip.
That may be so in certain cases—but Ukip’s 15 per cent showing in the national polls cannot be put down to anti-politics alone. The outright victory of Ukip in this year’s national European parliamentary elections, the victory in the Clacton by-election (a Tory seat), and the hair’s breadth second place in the Heywood and Middleton by-election (a Labour seat) combine to suggest that something much more substantial is occurring.
The most convincing explanation for Ukip’s rise is that it has successfully exploited the politics of identity. This is similar to the anti-politics argument, but subtly different. It says that Ukip voters are not drawn to the party because they hate politics, but because they feel that politicians from the three other parties are just so very unlike them. In this analysis, Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are three interchangeable, southern Oxbridge graduates, the three of them products of identical socio-intellectual circumstances. They have negligible experience outside the world of politics, have all been media trained in the rigours of message discipline, all deploy spin doctors, dress the same, look and sound strangely similar, and represent a London-centric elite that bears almost no resemblance at all to the majority of the rest of the country. How can such people ever hope to represent the interests of the British public?
Farage’s appearance, and his ability…