How to reinvent a party

When I embarked upon my journalism career, a good 12 or 13 years ago, I shared an office with Nigel Farage, who is now head of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Well, ‘shared’ is perhaps a rather big word. Since he belongs to a party that chose not to recognise the legitimacy of Brussels, he rarely turned up at the European Parliament. When he did, we’d share a jovial bit of morning banter, eyes watering from the tobacco smoke that suddenly engulfed the room (this being before the European Union banned smoking in its buildings and then in much of Europe).

The one piece of advice that everyone seemed to be giving me at the time – even the eurosceptics – was: “If you’re serious about a career in the British media, be careful not to get too close to UKIP.”

This was at a time when UKIP only had three MEPs [Members of the European Parliament], and a definite reputation for being part of the loony fringe. The following European election – in 2004, I think – the number of UKIP MEPs jumped up to 11. They didn’t become any more normal, and they didn’t show any greater willingness to turn up for the turgid parliamentary plenaries.

This was at a time when people like Robert Kilroy-Silk, the rather pompous and blatantly xenophobic former BBC chat show host, were being drawn to the party. His invective against the Arabic world – “We owe Arabs nothing”, he spluttered, and then proceeded to explain why they should show some gratitude towards our puny island – grated with what might be considered mainstream voters. His obvious vanity – “I cannot hide my tan, or my looks and I don’t intend to, and I am not ashamed of either” – also didn’t sit well with the regular Joe Bloggs.

He was only the highest-profile member of what was, on the whole, turning out to be a rather nutty lot.

The problem with a party like UKIP, which was founded around the single premise that the UK should withdraw from the EU, has always been that it attracts nutters. Like the British National Party (BNP), UKIP was a perfect platform for xenophobic bigots to air their populist and hate-inspired views.

This was one of the main reasons why the more rational wing of the UK’s eurosceptic movement disliked UKIP so much. All one ever heard of the eurosceptism in the UK seemed to be: “those nutty UKIP folk are at it again”. It prevented a proper debate taking place about why leaving the EU might actually make sense for the UK. It didn’t go down too well with our European partners, and was probably one of the reasons why the then-British ambassador didn’t get invited to more sauerkraut or bouillabaisse soirées.

On Thursday, UKIP won an astonishing 147 local council seats in the England, 23% of the total seats available. Before the election, they just had 7. This surprised even Farage, who optimistically predicted they would get 100.

David Cameron, our PM, has been forced to eat his words, having previously dismissed the party as a bunch of fruitcakes and loonies. Gaining so many seats across the country, and in many areas that have not been traditionally UKIP territory, makes them seem anything but insane.

The march towards Thursday’s result started some time before the election, though. The past couple of years has seen the party’s leader, Farage, appearing everywhere. I’ve been absolutely astonished by the extent to which the BBC seems to have been embracing UKIP, portraying the party not as a fringe entity but as a serious force to be reckoned with. But then Farage always knew how to use the media.

Farage is a terrific orator and, whatever your views about Europe, when you listen to him he really seems to make sense. When he talks about the UK’s immigration policy, he really touches a chord with ordinary people. Of course something needs to be done about the UK – and the EU’s – daft and schizophrenic immigration policy; but few people tackle this issue. And few could tackle it with the aplomb that Farage has mastered. In silver tones, he repeats and repeats again that we’re not against foreigners, just those foreigners that are not going to contribute to society.

And who can argue against that? It’s positively seductive.

I’m not a huge fan of Farage. I knew him briefly – and always enjoyed our smoke-asphyxiating morning conversations, filled with humour and joviality – but I think he deserves tremendous credit for turning the party around, and positioning it squarely alongside the other three main parties.

This is even more astonishing given that UKIP, as noted above, was initially formed as a single-issue party. And I’m still not entirely sure what else it stands for. Nor, I imagine, are most of the electorate. Getting across this message will be the challenge for Farage over the next couple of years. And I’m certain he is up to it.

I’d just like to leave you with one further thing that the footage from the BBC news reports yesterday reminded me of. By Jove, the head of UKIP can really down a pint. Maybe that’s why the great British public voted for his party.

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