Yes, yes, I know it’s supposed to be ‘unfair’ that Ukip ended up with only one MP while securing 13 per cent of the popular vote. But that’s first-past-the-post for you. You have to win a seat to get into Parliament. The British electorate was offered the chance to to ditch FPTP back in 2011 and said, nope, we’ll keep the unfair system.
As for Ukip coming second and third in all those Labour seats, it’s impressive but I suspect not terribly significant. White northern working-class voters were protesting against the fact that none of the major parties gave a toss about the destruction of their communities by the merciless progress of modernisation. Many of them blamed this on immigrants; how many of them were racists is difficult to say, because ‘racism’ can mean almost anything these days. They were also angered by the growth of self-policing Muslim ghettoes some of whose ‘community leaders’ ignored the atrocious rape of non-Muslim girls. Quite right, too, though in my view the innermost circle of hell is reserved for the police and social workers who allowed these crimes to continue for years.
But, please, Ukip, spare me any more briefings about your party overtaking Labour in its heartlands in 2020. For that to happen, you’d need to have have captured a good handful of seats on Thursday. You didn’t manage even one. (Obviously I’m not counting the sole Ukip MP, who is only there because he was first elected as a Tory.) More important, you’d need a political philosophy, however crudely expressed.
Ukip doesn’t have one; if you doubt that, just read my colleague Sebastian Payne’s uniquely well informed blog posts on the Ukip campaign. The formidable Douglas Carswell does have a philosophy: it’s set out in The Plan, the book he co-authored with Daniel Hannan in 2008. You can read his summary of its argument here, in an article in The Guardian. Carswell calls for radical decentralisation under the headline ‘Tories can be the true progressives now’. Carswell drafts the Ranters, the Chartists and the Suffragettes into his campaign for ‘localism and direct democracy’.
Now it’s possible that the 9,627 Ukip voters in Bolton South East were fired up by learning about Carswell’s proposed ‘Senate of Regions’ in their well-thumbed copies of The Plan, but I’m sceptical. Indeed, I doubt that more than a dozen members of the Ukip high command are even aware of the book’s existence. There was certainly little trace of its thinking in the party’s manifesto, whose launch the MP for Clacton was unfortunately too busy to attend.
Carswell’s patriotic but uncompromisingly modern agenda – which seeks to exploit the possibilities of digital technology before the Left do so – is far more intellectually bracing than any of Cameron’s ideas (which isn’t saying much, admittedly). It’s also coloured by fantasy, but there were enough good ideas The Plan to help Ukip to fashion a coherent agenda based on political principles – liberation from the European Union, naturally, but also from a comically swollen British public sector that restricts economic and intellectual freedom.
By the time Carswell jumped ship last year, however, Ukip wasn’t interested. If it ever was.
About two years ago lots of right-wing libertarian Conservatives had persuaded themselves that Nigel Farage’s mission was to construct a real Tory party to challenge Dave the Appeaser. He did nothing to discourage them (or perhaps I should say ‘us’, because for a time I was a Ukip fellow-traveller).
But then along came ‘Red Ukip’ and the switch from Europe to immigration as a focus of protest. Farage had worked out, correctly, that the British electorate – while keen to pay as little tax as possible – has little interest in reducing the footprint of the state. And in the northern seats where Ukip desperately wanted to establish a foothold, voters are in favour of government spending so long as it doesn’t go to immigrants or welfare scroungers.
Creating Red Ukip seemed to make short-term electoral sense, therefore, but the switch was so sudden that it looked unpleasantly opportunistic. Also, Blue Ukippers were only just beginning to get their act together, and they winced every time a Thatcher-hating defector from Labour appeared on TV to call for the renationalisation of the railways and higher taxes for the rich.
Ukip-friendly right-wing journalists, always a thin-skinned breed, felt particularly insulted by this volte-face, which left them looking gullible. They felt betrayed by Paddy O’Flynn, Express hack-turned-MEP, who conveniently fell in love with big government just as Ukip shifted its gaze northwards. And it didn’t help that Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford (the Ant and Dec of Ukip academics, one of whom went seriously native, but I always forget which) implied that the new strategy was a stroke of genius.
The real problem with the Blue/Red Ukip project, however, is best summed up by this YouGov map:
The notion that you can build a coalition from this demography is just plain nuts. No serious thinking went into it. And indeed the coalition never got off the ground. Saloon bar and public bar didn’t mingle; instead, Nigel Farage was forced to nip between the two, accepting pints off both, sending out cheerful messages and nipping out for a fag when anyone spotted that he was contradicting himself.
The truth is that it takes takes decades to turn a protest party into a general election contender (which is one reason it almost never happens) and it helps if you’ve made up your mind what you’re protesting against, let alone what you stand for. Farage, having achieved the remarkable of feat of inserting supposed ‘fruitcakes’ into the political landscape, then made the mistake of rushing things. He imagined that the nervous energy that enabled him to triumph at the European elections would yield similar results – i.e., 30 or 40 seats – in 2015.
But this time he was tired, worn down not just by his hectic schedule but by almost constant pain caused by his plane accident in 2010. And he was emotional. Infuriated by metropolitan sneers, he often rushed to defend the bigots and racists among his supporters. I’m not saying these people were the true face of Ukip, but no insurgent party contesting every seat in Britain has the resources to vet its candidates properly. Farage, having banned any former member of a far-right party from joining Ukip, thought that was enough. It wasn’t.
Arguably, though, it wasn’t the extremists who did most damage to Ukip: it was the permanently angry Kippers who splutter at the slightest criticism of their party. I’m expecting them to pop up in the comment thread below. And this time they have something to be angry about – the fact that under first-past-the-post it takes 17 million votes to elect a Ukip parish councillor (I forget the exact statistic).
But I suspect that their fury at our ‘unfair’ electoral system conceals a deeper disappointment: that they missed all their targets except Clacton, and they only just hit that. In 649 out of 650 seats they were beaten by someone else. In Scotland, by contrast, the SNP beat everyone in 56 in out 59 seats. That’s because, alarmingly, they captured the national mood. The Nats are every bit as chippy as the Kippers, and some of them are a good deal more thuggish. But their anger is outweighed by enthusiasm that’s widely distributed throughout the community. The Scots got the result they wanted. So, broadly speaking, did the English. FTFP hands out rough justice, but it’s justice all the same.
Even if Ukip’s Red/Blue strategy had worked on Thursday and it had won, say, 20 seats, I doubt that its new MPs would have changed the face of Westminster. There’s too much diversity of opinion. The SNP is diverse, too, but you can at least place those opinions on a spectrum; its members are nationalist and socialist in varying degrees but there’s a unifying goal of an independent Scotland.
As it is, with just one MP who isn’t a proper Kipper – meaning not angry enough – Ukip will probably fall apart. Its swing voters won’t swing that way again; ordinary members will lose interest. That leaves the hard core, many of whom hate each other. Don’t expect a clean fracture along red and blue lines. Protest movements in decline don’t do anything cleanly. And Ukip has a sectarian past: its founder, Alan Sked, loathes the party.
But don’t write off Ukip entirely. Movements that fall apart occasionally manage to reconstitute themselves. If Ukip survives the crisis it will have to revert to its blue roots. Suzanne Evans and Diane James are impressive figures; a cleaned-up Tory Ukip led by a woman could conceivably appeal to Conservative Eurosceptics persecuted by a triumphant Dave. But any future leader must resist the temptation to build castles in the air, because that’s what did for Nigel. And in the meantime we can be sure of one thing: the coming recriminations will be a source of delicious amusement for the media.