The joke’s not on Nigel Farage. It’s on the rest of us

Published in The Guardian (January 29th, 2014)

It has been a bad few days for Ukip. First, one of the party’s councillors said that flooding was God’s revenge for gay marriage. Then one of Ukip’s best-known characters mocked a disabled student, and finally the party’s policies came under sustained attack from its own leader. Nigel Farage rightly dismissed Ukip’s 2010 election manifesto as total drivel, then tried to distance himself from such nonsense as bringing in uniforms for taxi drivers, until it emerged he’d written the foreword.

This is all too typical of the circus that surrounds Britain’s most disruptive political force. Previously, some of its leading lights have displayed the most disgusting racism, sexism and homophobia. But the party has escaped lasting controversy by portraying itself as an insurgency of straight-talking folk that is merely pricking political correctness. This is helped by the soft-soap media treatment so often given to the jocular Farage – a man who has been treated to an astonishing 26 outings on Question Time, the BBC’s most prominent political forum.

This time, however, the party has been made to look so absurd that even Farage has said he needs to professionalise his fledgling force and drive out the ‘Walter Mitty’ characters damaging their reputation. Such is his charm, the fuss will soon be forgotten. But behind the jokes and japes lies an unpleasant party founded on fear, one that exploits the anxiety of older voters and is proving to be a profoundly corrosive influence on British politics.

For all the laughter at a party demanding that people dress properly in theatres and for London Underground’s Circle line to become a circle again, the manifesto gives a glimpse into the party’s hate-filled heart. It would terminate statutory maternity pay, scrap equality legislation, ban the burqa in public buildings, bring back the cane and celebrate the British empire. Strangely for a party that claims to be on the side of ordinary working people, Ukip also wanted to slash taxes for the rich, give greater powers to the police and hand MPs more freedom over their expenses.

Now this ridiculous document has been torn up and Ukip is left standing naked in the European elections, bereft of any policies. Incredibly, Ukip remain favourites to win – and one in seven voters still say they would back them in a general election. Who needs policies in this postmodern political world?

Conventional wisdom states that it is attitudes, not policies, that attract people to Ukip. It is the sanctuary for people who think nativity plays are being banned, children sometimes need a smack around the ear and foreigners are jumping queues for social housing. This analysis may be true – yet it is the party’s policies that are influencing political debate on Europe, benefits and immigration, as the tremulous mainstream parties respond to Ukip’s rise with ever-hardening positions.

So where once David Cameron called Ukip a bunch of  ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’, now his party seeks to outbid them with weekly announcements of benefit and immigration crackdowns. The Liberal Democrats seem to have abandoned any sense of liberalism. And Labour cannot stop apologising for its alleged failure to stop Poles coming to this country, which should be hailed as one of its finest achievements in office.

This failure to confront Ukip is a shameful display of collective timidity. The shame is not just that the political discourse is now so negative. Nor that the Tories, the most panic-stricken party, can never appease a rival force that wants a freeze on immigration and exit from Europe. So all the leadership has managed to do is strengthen its own rebel right and increase the likelihood of a split – precisely the outcome most desired by Farage.

No, the ultimate tragedy is that so little is being done to tackle public disenchantment with our current political system, the root cause of Ukip’s rise. This is not unique to Britain, of course, but it is why Farage is taken seriously and Russell Brand’s ridiculous posturing has proved popular. So we have futile rhetoric on immigration, but minimal discussion over how to reinvent politics in the digital age. Instead, the cynical games go on at Westminster – and a nasty party with no policies may win the next nationwide elections.

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