Never before has one man with so little power commanded so much political attention. Pick up a newspaper or switch on the BBC news and the chances are you’ll read about the crazy, perhaps abhorrent, views of a local council candidate you’ve never heard of.
Nigel Farage has become almost omnipresent on politics shows. UKIP may not have a single MP yet, but the anti-EU, anti-immigration
party are the biggest story in Westminster right now.
Farage’s stock has been rising fast ever since UKIP nearly won last year’s Eastleigh by-election. Now with polls increasingly predicting an outright win in the looming Euro elections, he could cause a political earthquake with enormous implications.
David Cameron once labelled UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. Now he must appease legions of Conservative voters and activists who, turned off by his modernising agenda, are finding a new home in a party that resembles and mimics the language of ‘Old Tories’.
If he fails, the prime minister risks losing the next election, his party and perhaps his job.
Here, Esquire Weekly explores this new phenomenon in British politics and explains why it is that Farage has the Westminster village running scared.
1 | Outsider parties are breaking through – and it’s not just in Britain
In an era of austerity, when public faith in politics is at an all-time low, traditional parties across the Western world are being challenged by newer, outsider alternatives.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale is riding high in the polls. Comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement won a quarter of the Italian general election vote.
Rather like Le Pen, UKIP benefits from the fact that all the mainstream parties have been part of very recent, unpopular governments. Fortunes can change quickly in politics. It wasn’t so long ago that Alex Salmond’s SNP would have been described as populist outsiders.
2 | Farage contrasts favourably with a uniquely unpopular set of leaders
At this stage of its development, the UKIP brand centres around one man. Opponents will scoff at the ex-public school, City trader-turned-Euro politician’s image as an authentic man of the people, but his communication skills should not be underestimated.
Farage speaks passionately, in a language that voters understand. For all the shrewd PR, though, he is lucky to be facing a trio of unpopular party leaders, all professional politicians widely deemed to be out of touch and barely distinguishable from one another.
On the sole occasion that one of these leaders gave him a debate platform, Farage trounced Nick Clegg.
3 | UKIP’s brand and policies have long-term appeal to a sizeable portion of the electorate
Where Farage may differ from fellow populist Grillo is that, rather than simply protesting against the status quo, the UKIP agenda represents a long-standing political tradition.
To great effect, Farage has pitched himself as the only politician prepared to stand up to the EU and criticise mass immigration.
On both issues, he is broadly in tune with majority opinion. Almost every country in Europe has a socially conservative party hostile to immigration and the EU. They are virtually all on the rise.
4 | The European elections offer the perfect opportunity for a protest vote, which UKIP should monopolise
Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system has historically been the undoing of minor parties in general elections, but these lesser, proportional Euro polls offer a unique chance to break through.
Turnout will be relatively low, with angrier protesting types the more likely to vote.
Labour and the Tories are unlikely to get much more than 50 per cent combined and whereas hoovering up the protest vote used to be a Lib Dem forte, its transformation into a governing party leaves UKIP as the principle anti-establishment option.
They’ll also benefit from the imminent collapse in BNP support from an all-time high in 2009.
5 | Extra publicity may help, rather than hinder, their long-term prospects, despite what some political commentators say
There is a school of thought that says the UKIP bubble will burst once their views are held up to the same scrutiny as the main parties.
Yet so far, a stream of attacks on Farage and other assorted UKIP characters from opponents and hostile newspapers have failed to dent their popularity.
Extra publicity is invaluable to a minor party, which would otherwise be ignored. It offers the chance to get their most popular messages out, further enhance name recognition and compensate for their absence from daily Westminster business.
6 | UKIP is building a movement – and party – that can ultimately outlast Farage
UKIP is often portrayed as a one-man band, wholly reliant on Farage remaining popular and relevant. However, a critical effect of a good result on 22 May will be to significantly increase its base of MEPs and local councillors, strengthening its presence in constituencies.
While the other parties have lost hundreds of thousands of members, UKIP is growing fast and attracting ordinary citizens into the political process.
Far from being purely a Home Counties phenomenon, it’s also becoming Labour’s main opposition in many northern constituencies where voters feel alienated by what they see as a London elite.
7 | Many of these UKIP voters will be impossible to appease, no matter what
The traditional response to such mid-term protests has been for the bigger parties to appease protest voters by stealing the policies and language of the new challenger.
This time could be different, however, because the mainstream either cannot or will not address certain key issues.
According to the latest YouGov poll, 87 per cent of UKIP supporters want to leave the EU altogether and 69 per cent support leaving even if the relationship were renegotiated to David Cameron’s satisfaction.
That’s a big problem for the political mainstream. Likewise, UKIP has made hay from opposing issues like gay marriage and the High Speed Two (HS2) rail network, which appeal strongly to a sizeable minority, yet are out of touch with the wider public and political mood.
8 | A sustained UKIP challenge could decide the next election, denying the Conservative party victory
So long as UKIP remain on course for double-digit support, the effect on the next General Election will be profound. While UKIP is taking voters from across the board, the Tories are by far the worst affected by the rise of Farage’s party.
Polls of the key marginal seats demonstrate that a UKIP presence could hand dozens of seats to Labour and hamper the Tories in its battles against the Lib Dems.
Plus, when it comes to the campaign itself, if Farage gets to appear in the TV debates, he could enjoy a similar dramatic boost as Nick Clegg in 2010. No wonder Tory party grandees are seriously worried.
9 | The party leader with most to lose is the Prime Minister
In addition to this electoral headache, David Cameron may have to worry about colleagues plotting his downfall. Tories are famous for ditching unpopular leaders mid-term and, if he can’t halt the Farage bandwagon soon, MPs could panic.
The last Conservative government (led by the decent, but dull, John Major) was ripped apart by tensions over Europe and the party is much more Eurosceptic nowadays.
Backbenchers have caused trouble for Cameron throughout this parliament and talk openly about forming an electoral pact with UKIP. Such a pact is impossible for Cameron, who supports EU membership, offering rivals a chance to differ.
10 | Whoever is its leader, UKIP represents a long-term challenge to the Conservative party, and the Tories’ policies may have to
change to stop supporters from deserting it
Whoever heads UKIP, these problems aren’t going away. Whereas historically the Tories maintained a coalition of nationalists, free marketeers, social conservatives and libertarians, uniting the Right is increasingly beyond the capacity of any leader.
For example, it’s hard to see how Boris Johnson, who supports an amnesty for illegal migrants, could win back anti-immigration UKIP supporters – his affable personality can only obscure his socially liberal views so much.
There are parallels to be drawn with the rise of the Tea Party in the US, whose forming of a right-wing faction within the Republican Party makes it ever harder to win elections.