Look back on May 2014 in ten years’ time and there will probably be a fair chunk of head-scratching over a result that has seen UKIP emerge as the largest British party in the European Parliament. An unpopular Conservative government and a Liberal Democrat party tarnished by association should surely- on paper- have seen a comfortable Labour win, rather than the rise of a party with policies widely viewed as being Thatcherism reincarnated. Such is the cult of personality surrounding Nigel Farage.
When George Berkeley mused that “perception is reality” in the 17th century, he probably didn’t expect his words to one day be used to explain the rise of Farage. However, the gap between public perceptions of UKIP and Farage and the reality of the party is a large factor behind their electoral rise, with privately-educated former banker Farage deemed the anti-establishment saviour for many, rather than the right-wing embodiment of privilege he is.
The UKIP vote is a double edged protest vote, against both the out-of-touch blankness of Westminster parties and against the European Union as a whole, rallying around the man whose personality stands out from the crowd simply by virtue of him having one.
Chasing Farage’s numerically flawed arguments over the costs of immigration, the inbuilt criminality of Romanians and the dictatorship of the EU to parliament all over the internet is nigh on impossible. But, even when he is challenged, Farage has managed to shrug off accusations with an everyday blokeishness that has so far seen little of the dirt thrown at him actually stick. That he is perceived in voters’ minds as being “the normal one” of the four main parties is a damning indictment of the rest of the party leaders, but has seen him and his party cut some slack by those who voted for them.
Farage has a resonance with many voters that the likes of Ed Miliband just don’t. Nick Clegg is perceived as a sell-out, David Cameron as a toff and Miliband as boring, weird and incapable, with the British public not embracing a party leader since pre-war Tony Blair. So how far can Farage’s personality take UKIP?
In truth, probably not that far. When all is said and done, many Labour voters that lent their voice to UKIP in Europe will return – wary of the prospect of another Conservative government – with the inverse true of some Conservatives.
UKIP also need to flesh out the bones of their policies in order to be perceived as a credible party to vote for in a general election, with a tricky balance to be struck. They must manage to offer the policies that they think will get them seen as being beyond just a protest vote, but keep their broad electoral appeal. No mean feat for a party currently dining out on their ability to attract votes from all other parties and who transcend left/right divisions in their broad immigration-based appeal.
Previous EU elections have seen UKIP win 16.1% (2004) and 16.5% (2009) before crashing to 2.2% and 3.1% respectively a year later. Riding on the crest of a wave at the moment, UKIP know that their popular support may fall, alienated by policies that cannot possibly appeal to all the voters they have snared, and is likely to be lower under a different voting system (as it was in the council elections). After all, a year is a long time in politics.
Which brings us neatly to Miliband. While UKIP can easily screw up their campaign in a year, building credibility up is a slow process that Miliband needs to start fast if he is to win.
It must be a source of great frustration for the Labour party that their leader – and currently his inability to eat a bacon sandwich – is the focus of attention rather than their policies. Trailing on personal popularity, Miliband has a fairly solid policy portfolio, with ideas such as a minimum wage rise (although the lack of a living wage can go down as an opportunity missed), rent controls and tougher action on zero hour contracts all the kind of policy he needs to attract back disillusioned Labour voters.
Throw the potential of railway renationalisation and any other headline-grabbing policies that he has up his sleeve into the mix and it should be an exciting time for Labour. Only it isn’t. At the moment, if Miliband were to win then he would be entering number ten on a similar kind of “least bad option” mandate that ushered Cameron in. Hardly an inspiring start for a potential leader. But with Miliband unable to shake off an inability of voters to picture him in charge, and with talk of future leaders already circling, it is not just Nigel Farage that has a big year ahead of him approaching the general election.
That UKIP won on Sunday night can in large part be put down to the force of Farage. However, Miliband’s uninspiring role also played a part and could do again in a year if he fails to cause a radical shift in perceptions. Unless Labour can promote a positive reason for lost voters to return, beyond not being the Tories, UKIP could find themselves in similarly fertile ground, albeit on a smaller scale, next year.
Rightly or wrongly, votes are sucked in by Farage in spite of his UKIP colleagues. Worryingly for Labour, on the other hand, many of their votes come in spite of their leader.
By Damian Buxton