Confront the pessimistic protest politics of UKIP

Published in the London Evening Standard (December 19th, 2012)

Nick Clegg has made a lot of noise this week, celebrating his fifth anniversary as Liberal Democrat leader with a defiant defence of his record in government.

For all his fine words, all he really achieved was to underline again the painful tragedy of ensnarement in the trap of coalition, his unloved party slowly bleeding away in front of an uncaring electorate.

Meanwhile, David Cameron notched up seven years at the helm of the Conservatives. Unlike his deputy he did not make a fuss about the anniversary, for he too displays the deep wounds of coalition politics. Latest polling puts his party at just 29 per cent in the polls, the lowest level under his leadership.

How far off those halcyon days of harnessing huskies and hugging hoodies must seem now, when Mr Cameron only had to make a flip comment about a chocolate orange to win adulatory headlines. Instead of letting sunshine win the day, the furious storm clouds of economic crisis broke, engulfing the country in economic gloom and disrupting attempts to give the nasty party a nice makeover.

Now as the next election hoves over the horizon, a menacing figure blocks the view of both the Prime Minister and his deputy. With a smirk on his face and pint of best British bitter in his hand, the irrepressible Nigel Farage has turned his party of pub bores into a political force frightening the two parties of government.

One survey found nearly one in seven people intending to vote for Ukip, whose members were infamously once dismissed by Mr Cameron as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. After coming second in two recent parliamentary by-elections, Mr Farage’s claim to head the new third force in British politics has some substance.

Never mind that their policies are absurd, their platform riddled with inconsistencies. Ukip will remain a central feature of the political landscape until the next general election, boosted by near-inevitable success in the 2014 European ballots. It is increasing the irrelevance of the Lib-Dems while terrifying the Tories.

This presents a profound dilemma for Mr Cameron, one that may end up defining his place in political history. Forget the debate over gay marriage: this is the moment when he confronts his Clause Four challenge. Does he tack to the right in a bid to woo back those deserting his camp — or does he tackle the prophets of doom and gloom, taking head on their false claims and snake-oil solutions?

This choice is made tougher by Conservative Party cracks bursting open. A handful of malcontent MPs have shown such open disdain for their leader that the influential politician turned pundit Matthew Parris is urging Mr Cameron to kick them out of the party, insisting they belong in Ukip. The unhappy Tory family is in danger of turning on itself, responded Tim Montgomerie, emollient editor of the ConservativeHome website.

The natural assumption has been that Europe lay at the heart of these problems, the issue long dividing the Tory tribe and offering such sweet succour to Ukip. The Prime Minister and his advisers are going through agonies over a long-awaited speech on the subject. But regardless of the ultimate question of our membership, the reality is that the Prime Minister, his party and the country at large are pretty much all strongly Eurosceptic.

The rise of Ukip reflects the politics of frustration rather than the policies of Brussels. Under its likeable leader, the party has ridden a wave of populist disgust at the behaviour of politicians, the press, the police and so many other parts of the Establishment to provide refuge for people angered by modernity and feeling alienated in their own country.

Voters falling for Mr Farage are those fearful of the future and looking for people to blame for their insecurity, as former Tory treasurer Lord Ashcroft has proved after copious polling. This is perhaps inevitable — if highly alarming — at a time of rapid globalisation and rampant austerity. In Italy, such people are turning to a comedian; in Germany, to ultra-libertarians; in Greece and France, to racist parties on the far Right.

The pressure is building on Mr Cameron to pander to the pessimistic concerns of Ukip’s disgruntled elderly supporters with tough “dog whistle” policies on issues such as crime and immigration. Such reactionary measures might fly in the face of evidence but would be the easy path to take, offering hope of short-term pain relief from the headache caused by shrill voices on the Right.

It would, however, be at the expense of long-term gain for his party. Not just because immigration, for instance, comes behind the economy, pensions, health, tax, family life and schools as a concern when voters are asked what matters most to them and their family. But because as the Census showed last week, Britain is changing fast and the Conservatives must embrace a rapidly evolving nation to survive and thrive.

Nowhere demonstrates this more than London, which has grown so speedily and where more than one-third of residents are foreign-born. Despite this, it remains the engine of the economy, and for all the huge influx of immigrants has some of the best state schools in the country, undermining ill-informed arguments against sensible immigration and integration policies.

Mr Cameron is by nature an optimist, comfortable in his own skin and his own country. As one of his closest allies told me, his biggest mistakes came when he ignored his gut instincts and played political games. Now, more than ever, he needs to trust those instincts by confronting Ukip and its fellow travellers on the Right while demonstrating competence in government and calming the fears of those attracted to simplistic solutions.

This is not an easy task when caught in coalition and at the head of a fissured party — although his confident speech to party conference offered a template to unite his ranks. But even more than in those early days as leader, Mr Cameron must proffer a positive vision of the future to counter the pessimistic pipe dreams of a mythical past.

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