Ukip are fast becoming specialists in failure. They came second in the 2009 European elections; and then vanished like the airy fabric of a baseless dream in 2010. They came second in Eastleigh, Rotherham, and South Shields: but the only byelection victory for a party outside the Commons was George Galloway’s Respect. Now they have come second in Wythenshawe. If Ukip have proved anything since the last the election it’s that, if there is nothing at stake and no plausible alternative on offer, people will almost put them into a position of power.
But as easy and enjoyable as it might be, we shouldn’t write Ukip off too easily. Underneath the arid run of near misses, it is beginning to transform itself from a fringe pastime to a serious party. Diane James’ second-place finish in Eastleigh wasn’t particularly important: what really mattered is that for the first time in the party’s history, they had a candidate who wasn’t called Nigel Farage and didn’t immediately appear to have escaped from a nearby facility.
More importantly, back-of-house, Ukip is moving from an amateur outfit to a professional organisation. Prior to 2010, the party was so poorly managed that they still have very little idea where their vote is: which means that any constituency Labour party or Conservative association probably has a better idea how to get out the vote for Ukip than Ukip does. But that is changing, and it is a question of when, not if, Ukip translates local gains into a Commons presence.
They are aided not only by their own recruitment, but by trends that transcend their own party. There is a section of the Liberal party that supports classical liberalism that has a home under Nick Clegg, and a section that supports European social democracy that has a home under Ed Miliband. But there is a third section that wants a more sophisticated way of writing ‘it’s all gone to pot!’ on the ballot paper, and that element of the Liberal Democrats will keep Ukip in the game no matter what happens in 2015. But there is also a wider cultural shift that benefits Ukip in the long term.
Political movements, like blockbuster movies, start in the United States but they wash up in Wood Green quickly enough. Ukip are part of the latest entry from the studio that brought you the Third Way and Arnie Graf but is an altogether less feel-good film: let’s call them the post-reality right.
European news producers have always preferred to represent the Republican party at its Stetson-sporting and Bible-bashing worst, but they didn’t have to work very hard to do so at the last Republican convention. Polls showed that a fifth of the attendees thought that Barack Obama was a covert Muslim; almost half thought that he had been born overseas. A delegate to the Republicans’ soirée in Tampa was more likely to be a creationist than to believe in manmade climate change. Nuttiest of all, they thought that Mitt Romney was on course for a landslide victory.
Ukip is part of the post-reality right’s West End transfer. This week sees the launch of ‘Breitbart UK’: the British branch of a website that can best be described as what would happen if the comment sections of Telegraph Blogs and the Mail Online decided that the articles above were the work of a bunch of Eurofascist pinkos and decided to set up on their own. There are many criticisms of Thatcherism: but it was Margaret Thatcher who recognised that Britain had to be part of the European Union, and it was Margaret Thatcher who was among the first politicians to recognise the danger of manmade climate change. That’s a far cry from the anti-Brussels, blame the floods on the gay nuptials crowd. Nevertheless, they have a voice, they have media allies, and they have the beginnings of a party organisation. Ukip are now part of the political furniture, and they aren’t going away.
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