Wise answers needed to the Ukip surge

Published by The Financial Times (23rd May, 2014)

Nigel Farage insists his UK Independence party must now be taken seriously following its local election success. This is not easy to do. Ukip still lacks a manifesto. Until recently, its policy priorities included improving attire at the theatre and making the railways more glamorous. Still, the surge in support for the party should not be dismissed.

What matters now is how Ukip’s mainstream rivals respond to a result that is easily interpreted as a vote of no-confidence in Westminster. But Ukip is, at heart, a party of cheap protest, a misanthropic force railing at modernity and hostile to the globalisation upon which the British economy is based. This presents great risks.

The Conservative leadership needs to quash any talk of an electoral pact with Ukip. That would be an absurd ploy, which would only serve to promote Mr Farage’s insurgency. Then the Tories should take careful note of results coming in from London. Look, for instance, at the outer suburb of Merton, where Ukip actually lost seats, along with the Tories, as Labour gained control of the council. This is a rapidly changing borough. Three decades ago, ethnic minorities accounted for just 10 per cent of its population; today, the figure is almost half. This is the kind of place where Ukip might expect to do well, yet its harsh anti-immigration rhetoric failed to win over voters. National polling can be different to local realities.

As the migrants who helped make London the powerhouse of the British economy fan out into the suburbs, this serves as a salient warning to the Tories. Their initial response to Ukip has been to tack right, talking tough on immigration in a search for short-term gains. But this threatens to undermine both Britain’s distinctive economic model and the party’s long-term future. Backbenchers are beginning to understand this; reassuringly, there is growing pressure to respond to Ukip’s unrealistic pessimism by promoting the optimistic British brand of open capitalism. In recent days, we have seen hints of this from David Cameron, the prime minister, with his defence of Britain’s role as a tolerant, trading nation.

Labour, by contrast, is in danger of moving in the opposite direction. Under Ed Miliband it has been striking an increasingly regressive stance, its interventionist messages designed to shore up the core vote enough to enable it to flop over the electoral finishing line. It seems unable to stop apologising for the Blair and Brown governments’ alleged failure to stop Poles coming here. As next year’s general election approaches, some Labour strategists will push for more of this myopic blue-collar conservatism to counter the populist threat in the party’s northern heartlands.

The scale of Ukip’s electoral success has yet to become clear. We will learn more as local election results roll in from around the country, and then from the European results due on Sunday. But it will take far longer to tell whether this is a false dawn or the start of something profoundly significant for the shape of British politics. Much depends on Westminster’s response to the politics of anger – whether with pusillanimous panic or something more subtle. Yet it is just possible these results might help force a realignment, with unexpected consequences for both main parties.


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