Nigel Farage may seem genial but his party is anything but. The polls tell us that many voters are tempted to vote Ukip at the next election, while others dismiss them as a joke – but the prospect of them gaining more power in Europe is no laughing matter.
If the polls are right, and they probably are, legions of ordinary British people, decent in so many respects, will back Ukip in the forthcomingEuropean elections.
Some will tick the Farage box because they believe the party to be the future, setting out with clarity our country’s political, social and economic future. Others will give their endorsement because they have come to despise the other parties and the establishment. Indeed Farage has been encouraging them to turn away from the political elite and to see Ukip as a new way of doing things.
There will be those, genuinely unhappy, who wish for tougher action on migration and a handbrake turn away from Europe. Both are hot-potato issues and Ukip serves up a mash more easily digestible than that available elsewhere.
And then there is the contingent that thinks some or none of these things but will vote for the party as a form of interactive entertainment. “That Farage, he’s a good bloke,” they will say. “You can have a laugh with him.”
Ukip will do well because it can best survive in the polluted atmosphere that engulfs debate about migration and Europe, but also because it’s a perfect vehicle for a protest vote. No one takes it very seriously. And that’s the sadness. Because Ukip isn’t and has never been much of a laughing matter. Here’s why …
1. Its stances are bonkers
It appears to dislike everything about the European parliament, except, of course, the money EU taxpayers make available to its representatives (of which more later). Anything born of the EU seems bad. Let’s consider some of the things that have been bad in the recent past. In the past few months Ukip has voted against updated rules on cab design and safety, which would make it easier for the drivers of lorries to spot pedestrians and cyclists. Also against requirements that MEPs who draft legislation should publish which lobbyists they have met and their influence on the legislation. It opposed greater transparency for clinical trials data and greater protections for holidaymakers buying package holidays. Also legislation to tackle money laundering and calls for greater public access to EU documents. Things are moving in the right direction, perhaps. The2010 manifesto, which Farage has called “drivel”, called for taxi drivers to be required to wear uniforms, dress codes for the theatre and for the Circle line on London’s underground to be made a circle again.
2. It has nasty friends in Europe
Farage seems a laugh in that “hail fellow well met” way. But you can tell a lot by the friends he keeps. And some of the types he hangs out with in Brussels would be seen as a rough crowd here. Who are they? There are the figures in the xenophobic and rightwing Italian Northern League, the second largest grouping in the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, which Farage chairs. Umberto Bossi, its founder, once called for illegal immigrants to be shot. Farage knows they can be a bit unreconstructed. He had to expel one of its MEPs from the group last year after racist comments about Cécile Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister. She was, said Mario Borghezio, more suited to being a “housekeeper” or a low-level council official than a minister and would impose African “tribal traditions” on Italy.
The True Finns are firm friends too. One of them collided with a spot of bother for floating the idea of mandatory armbands for foreigners to make it easier for police to identify them.
The Danish People’s party: more ghastlies. In 2002, MEP Morten Messerschmidt was one of a group convicted of racially motivated offences. Frank Vanhecke is there too. He’s the former leader of Belgium’s Vlaams Blok, the far-right party disbanded after a court said it broke anti-racist laws. He appeared at a student rally with the BNP’s Nick Griffin in 2010. None of them are as obviously clubbable as Nige and he may want shot of them after the election. But they have been his Euro-mates for a while.
3. It’s a magnet for unsavoury types here
Domestically Ukip talks a good game. We only want respectable types, it says. But as Jeremy Hunt has pointed out, it does seem effortlessly able to attract – among the decent – a proportion of rum characters. When they say racist, Islamophobic or plain offensive things, Farage wields the stick. But even he must wonder why they pitch up on his party’s doorstep in the first place.
Andre Lampitt, we know. Having starred in the latest Ukip TV ad, he was outed for dismissing Ed Miliband as “a Pole”, asserting that Enoch Powell was right, Islam was Satanic and that Africans should be left to “kill themselves”. He has since been suspended. And then there was David Silvester, the councillor who attributed the winter floods to gay marriage.William Henwood popped up this week, calling for Lenny Henry, who seeks equality in the creative arts, to emigrate to “a black country”. These were outriders, perhaps. But what about fellow MEP Gerard Batten, who called for British Muslims to sign a special code of conduct promising not to engage in violent jihad. Farage said that wasn’t party policy.
But Batten’s still there, Ukip MEP for multicultural London. And would any other party have welcomed to a senior post Neil Hamilton, the disgraced poster boy of the cash for questions scandal? His election role has reportedly been downgraded, but he’s still deputy chair. At the weekend, he was on the BBC wearing his party hat and preaching the Faragian gospel. A strange choice to hoist on to the Ukip soapbox, but not the strangest. Is it worth mentioning that two of Ukip’s 2004 intake ended up in jail for EU expenses fraud? The party that isn’t like the other parties seems to be like the other parties after all.
4. It has rewarded offence
Recently the party has taken the stick to those who might tarnish its journey into the electoral mainstream. Perhaps that is because with favourable polls comes harsher scrutiny. But hitherto, it seemed to have little problem with those who caused outrage or offence. Poor Godfrey Bloom had to biff Michael Crick of Channel 4 News with a party brochureto get himself disciplined, but prior to that, the nonstop misogyny and references to aid being sent to Bongo Bongo Land were viewed benignly. In 2010 we encountered Paul Wiffen. He was London chairman of Ukip when he thought to hold forth on Community Care website, addressing those whose views were different. “You leftwing scum are all the same,” he said. “Wanting to hand our birthright to Romanian Gypsies who beat their wives and children into begging and stealing money they can gamble with, Muslim nutters who want to kill us and put us all under medieval Sharia law, the same Africans who sold their Afro-Caribbean brothers into a slavery that Britain was the first to abolish (but you still want to apologise for!).” Like Lampitt, he was suspended. And then he was selected as Ukip’s London North East candidate for the London assembly in 2012.
He did not win.
5. It hates the EU but cashes in
The Times and Farage have tussled about all the money he claims from the European parliament, in addition to the average £83,000 salary. It is my entitlement, he says. I use EU money to hasten its demise. Much of the focus has been on the monthly fixed-rate allowance of £3,850 and whether it is used to fund his activities as an MEP or party work. But attention has also been paid to the fact that Farage is one of 38 British MEPs in line for a second EU pension, which could reap them £41,000 a year in addition to the basic EU fund.
“It is not a system that I defend but it is the system,” he told the Telegraph.
His take on the allowances, as revealed in the Guardian, is clear and may be instructive. Is this above board, he was asked. “I think I’ve kept just the right side of the line, albeit pushing right up to it,” he replied.
Everywhere contradictions. Last week Ukip’s patriotic People’s Army toured the country in a-Mercedes Benz.
6. Its MEPs are not exactly worker bees
Having been elected and having pledged to topple the EU from within, one might think the Ukipians would be assiduous attenders, the better to disparage and critique it. Instead, they are famed absentees.
This seems a badge of honour. They get elected to the European parliament, receive a salary and allowances for being members of the European parliament. And then restrict appearances there on the basis that regular attendances would lend the place legitimacy. Ukip’s deputy leader, Paul Nuttall, set out the position on his blog after his spotty record in the EU parliament was flagged up in the Telegraph.
“I’ll hold my hands up,” he said. “My attendance record is flaky to say the least. But so what?” Dispatched to Brussels, his focus is actually his UK fiefdom. “I treat Brussels with the contempt it deserves.”
7. It’s as vulnerable to special interests as any other party
Much of the criticism of what Farage calls the establishment elite boils down to influence and money. He says that the other parties are in hock to vested interests and that chimes. No one wants to see the political process skewed by interests with fat wallets. So what is one to think of the Ukip poster campaign? The multimillionaire Paul Sykes has been generous, as previously he was to the anti-EU Democracy Movement and to the Conservatives before he fell out with them. But the £1.5m publicity campaign – the most visible in the party’s history – is as much his as Ukip’s. He funded it. Prudent perhaps. One of Britain’s richest self-made men, he didn’t become rich by wasting his money. But if his input is that important, who calls the shots?
8. It speaks with forked tongues
Leave aside the now acknowledged mistake of featuring Lampitt in the party political broadcast. And the fact that another person described as an ordinary voter in a manifesto document turned out to be a party employee who works for Farage. And the fact that one man featured in the poster campaign turned out to be a migrant actor from Ireland. And the fact that former head of the British Army Lord Dannatt condemned the image of the British flag on fire. Consider the central implausibility of the central claim: that 26 million of the European unemployed are gunning for jobs in Britain. Two million from the total are British anyway. Consider that if an entity save for a political party enjoying exemption from the advertising code of conduct ran that misleading ad, it would have been forced to withdraw it.
Then consider this, from the Sun on 12 April. “In an article MoT fix axe fears (March 30) we quoted a letter from Ukip containing claims that thousands of MoT test centres could close under EU proposals forcing motorists whose cars fail to go to a different garage for repairs. We have been informed that no such EU proposals exist and are happy to set the record straight.”
9. Its only plan is Nigel
Has there ever been a major party so dependent on one sellable character? Farage is, without question, the most dominant and effective party leader in national politics. Erase him from the canvas and what is left? EU stayaway Nuttall? “Liar and a cheat” Hamilton?
The cult of Farage is rivalled only in its potency by the cult of Boris, for like him, Farage is a vivid brand deployed to politics.
Both trade illusions. Boris projects slapstick and shambles when all the time beneath is ambitious focus and a keen-eyed grasp of modern politics. Farage is Everyman; all booze and fags and antennae for the cares and fears of ordinary people. This from the son of a stockbroker, with an often-lamented career in the City behind him; children all privately educated; prosperous product of a village upbringing in Kent.
10. It makes a sensible debate on Europe less likely
Quite the biggest achievement of Ukip has been to shape the ground on which we discuss two touchstone issues, Europe and migration. Both are complex. Both bring benefits and present challenges. But Ukip’s reductionist approach has made reasoned and nuanced discussion of both virtually impossible. And so, frightened of being eclipsed, and mindful that a simplistic answer will always trump a detailed one in the 24-hour news cycle, politicians in Farage’s slipstream distil their own arguments, minimising maturity and sacrificing logic. Those who present a reasoned argument are howled down or judged to have lost the argument. Perhaps the least amusing aspect of Farage is the impact he will have on parties other than his own.