The most abiding rule of British politics is that you don’t question the electorate. Ever. The customer is always right, even when they’re wrong.
So it is to Nigel Farage’s eternal credit and to the much-needed enhancement of his claim that UKIP is an anti-establishment party that he broke that rule last night, in the second of Bite the Ballot’s interviews with the five party leaders ahead of next year’s general election.
Faced with a room full of young people largely ill-disposed towards him and his party, Mr Farage stood firm and stuck to his guns. His popularity with young voters may not have been enhanced greatly; he may in fact have lost a few votes from the younger generation. But, in an age of political chefs desperate to cook the electorate’s favourite dish, garnished and served up just the way they like it, you have to admire the UKIP leader for providing us with a break from the norm.
If you had missed the show and simply looked at the social media stats, you would have thought that he had been received rather well. In every policy area Farage discussed, the #YesNigels (those on Twitter who agreed with the points he had made) outweighed the #NoNigels (those who disagreed). Those in the studio had a different take.
From the bloke who accused him of “spouting hidden racist views” to the woman who demanded to know how - given Mr Farage’s previous explanation of homophobia by UKIP members as ‘a joke’ - we were expected to know when he was being serious, they did not like him. And the feeling was mutual.
‘Get the facts right!’ Mr Farage barked at an audience member who had the audacity to ask him if he was aware that Britain was a global country. ‘You are going down a media myth,’ he told another youngster who challenged his immigration stats, referring to the infamous UKIP ‘29m Romanians’ immigration poster.
UKIP, said Mr Farage, are the opposition to the establishment. They are patriotic, but not nationalistic. A young man in the back row keen to see improvements in the living standards of ‘everyday working people’ (a Milispy?) disagreed and accused UKIP of being “dangerous”.
“You’d be concerned if a group of men of any nationality moved in next door to you,” he proposed to the audience. They weren’t too sure. “I live with 12 other people,” one member told him. Mr Farage tried again. “There’s nothing you can do to give every child a level playing field [in school],” he confidently asserted. Again, they weren’t buying it.
In what was the only point that elicited a reaction from the young people other than repressed hatred or, less, repressed rage, Mr Farage said that he believed too many young people are told that they have to go to university, and that not enough is done to support the training of school leavers in apprenticeships.
By the time we’d got onto gay marriage, even the irrepressibly jovial UKIP leader must have given up all hope of getting even a flicker of agreement from any of the young people. Another assertion, more hopeful than confident this time: “Homophobia is a generational thing.”
This time they just stared at him.
The Q&A ended in fitting fashion, with Mr Farage stating that he “had no idea” whether or not he believed in global warming, and claiming that the Tories were planning to steal all the brilliant policy ideas he had just articulated.
A combative performance in the midst of an abrasive audience, Farage enhanced his ever-growing reputation as a fearless debater. With Ed Miliband next in the spotlight, it will be intriguing to witness how the Labour leader copes with such scrutiny, although one would suspect that the audience reserved much of their repentant anger for UKIP’s sanguine saviour.