Friday, November 30th 2012, 2:29 AM EST
I guess Rotherham’s social services are going to have their work cut out after last night’s key by-election result – it seems there are far more children with Ukip voting parents than previously expected…
Ukip placed a confident second, taking their highest ever share of the vote in a by-election. You might say that this was just another case of a small, motivated band of voters letting off steam in an off-cycle contest – but it still represents a significant breakthrough. Ukip is only supposed to be a middle class, ex-Tory vote – the golf club fringe of conservatism. But Rotherham isn’t Tunbridge Wells; it’s northern and working class. By doing so well in a traditionally Labour area, the party has proven to its sceptics that its support is truly national. The populist revolt is bigger and wider than many anticipated.
Of course, Ukip was helped by the fostering scandal that rocked Rotherham and, briefly, made everyone feel a dash of sympathy. However, its charismatic leader, Nigel Farage, has also done a great job of exploiting long term memories of Labour’s incompetence and short term anger at David Cameron’s vacillating centrism. By establishing itself as the fourth party, Ukip has started to replace the Lib Dems as the “go to” vote for those protesting the status quo.
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And forgive the Lib Dems, father, for they no longer know what they’re doing. In Rotherham, they actually placed eighth – somewhere behind the English Democrats, who are basically Ukip without the love of yachting. Overall, Rotherham was a damning rejection of mainstream, centrist politics. Although Labour retained the seat very comfortably (which one would hope in such a safe area during a period of opposition), Ukip was way ahead of the rest of the pack in second place, the racist BNP came third and the Marxist Respect placed fourth. The Conservative Party managed only a dismal fifth. The centre doesn’t seem to have broken so much as evaporated.
Two questions have to be asked. First, why is this revolt happening? The answer is pretty simple: life outside a couple of lush parts of London is tough and has been tough for a number of years. What little New Labour achieved in revamping urban England was wiped away by the Credit Crunch, which actually exposed the shallow “I’m alright Jack” mentality behind the noughties boom. Housing is in short supply. Banks won’t lend. Prices are up. Jobs are rarer than an honest MP. Combine these micro problems with the macro crisis of a vacuum in national leadership and you have the classic scenario for a populist revolt. The little people are angry but there are no big names from the centreground capable of giving them leadership. So the anger finds its articulation on the extremes. Nigel Farage is this generation’s Pierre Poujade or Ross Perot. The ideological content isn’t as important as the feeling that he’s "one of us" and not "one of them". "Them" being the interminable, grey, privileged boys and girls who govern as if they were born to do so – and yet aren’t even very good at it. We are less lions led by donkeys than lambs led by sheep.
Second, why is Ukip getting the benefit of this anger? The party has its faults. Beyond the cult of Farage, which is sustained as much by good humour as admiration, it doesn’t really function as a thing of depth or coherence. In the last few days my colleagues have rowed about what Ukip stands for (libertarianism, proto-fascism, Peronism meets Real Ale?) but it doesn’t stand for much else but the anger at "them" in power. This doesn’t necessarily make Ukip a negative force. On the contrary the best it might do is to compel the centre to get its act together and start addressing the issues that really matter to ordinary people. But it does mean that Ukip will probably go the way of all populist fads: big for a season then defeated by its own capacity for random outrage uninhibited by party discipline. Witless remarks about the parenting abilities of gay people certainly won’t help its cause. Such parties are prone to self-destruction.
Nevertheless, Rotherham marks a big change from the time when Ukip was purely a feature of European elections. It has matured in to an important political force. The public seems to be developing the attitude that the party is a vehicle for ideas other than resistance to metric measurements and EU regulations on the shape of bananas. Its vague philosophy helps it for now, making it a magnet for every big and small gripe at the way things are. And so Ukip breaks into new territory in Labour England where it finds a new constituency of the terminally p-ed off – a constituency that is increasingly undivided by class, region or even party identity.
The revolution rolls on.
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