“An earthquake”. “The people's army”. “The most extraordinary event in British politics in 100 years.” A significant part of the mainstream media has colluded with the picture presented by Nigel Farage's overwrought claims.
It would be better not to permit ourselves to be trapped in this narrative if we are to stand any chance of finding out the real significance of what happened on 22 May and what should therefore be the reasoned response of politicians and voters.
Looking at Ukip's share of the European vote in relation to the three main Westminster parties, the figures are: Ukip 27.5 per cent (+11 per cent), Labour 25.4 per cent (+ 9.7 per cent), Conservatives 23.9 per cent (-3.8 per cent) and Liberal Democrats 6.9 per cent (-6.8 per cent).
This translated into 23 seats for Ukip (+10), 18 for Labour (+7), 18 for the Conservatives (-7) and one seat for the Liberal Democrats (-11). Obviously, Ukip are clear winners in terms of seats gained over 2009, but their lead of just 2.1 per cent over Labour is hardly indicative of an unstoppable trend in our national politics. Even more significant here is the 66 per cent of the electorate who did not vote. When Ukip's electoral success is considered as representing 27 per cent of one third of voters, cataclysm is less apparent.
When the local elections are put in the frame, the hyperbole is equally ridiculous. Ukip gained seats from all the major parties with a vote share of 3.8 per cent but does not control a single council. If their increased numbers are to translate into anything meaningful at the local level, they will have to learn to work cooperatively, consensually, with attention to matters far outside their comfort zone and with an awareness of responsible public utterance. The suspension of a Redditch councillor for alleged racist and homophobic comments on Facebook, only days after his election, does not promise well.
It would be idle to claim that Ukip have not made an impact. But the reasons for this are not going to be palatable to many mainstream politicians. Already we have heard panicky demands from some Tory MPs for a Ukip-Conservative electoral pact. David Cameron has been quick to depict the EU as “too big and interfering” and promised to “deliver” on immigration. Nick Clegg has also chosen to focus his response on Europe. Ed Miliband has at least looked wider and acknowledged that “there isn't a simple answer” to “problems that have built up over generations.” Alone among the party leaders, he appears to have realised that the wail of protest is not primarily about Europe. There may therefore be some hope there that he may lead his party into examining its failures with humility and honesty.
The reasons for an increase in Ukip support are indeed complex. And the paradox is, that the party does not appear to be at ease with complexity. Seeking simple solutions to multi-layered problems and shrinking from change are characteristic of many of their public statements and vox-pop opinions. It is at this point that one must differentiate between Ukip apparatchiks and the people who last week voted for them in increased numbers. These people are diverse. They are not all loose-tongued bigots and bullies any more than they are – in Farage's peculiarly unpleasant words – all “Half colonels, living on the edge of Salisbury Plain desperate for the reintroduction of the birch, who only cheer up after the first pink gin of the day.”
What are loosely called the “chattering classes” – among which those of us who make our money through comment must be numbered, whether we like it or not – do not generally live in areas scarred by deprivation and a sense of dis-empowerment. Whatever our origins, our surroundings are usually pleasant: either ethnically diverse and well integrated, or reassuringly mono-cultural. We are networked and well educated. We do not perceive – whether through anecdote or real experience – our opportunities or those of our children and friends as reduced, or even blocked by immigration. And although we cannot remain untouched by austerity, by and large, we do not have first hand, daily knowledge of the level of suffering experienced by so many people.
A large swathe of what politicians like to call “ordinary people” have, in varying degrees, been abandoned by successive governments and are now alienated by the jargon and managerial tendencies of the political class. Nigel Farage – son of a stockbroker and himself a public-school educated former City trader – has read this mood with considerable skill and exploited it with cynicism. It is ironic that while claiming a 'man-of-the people' persona, of which the standard props are a pint glass and a cigarette, this 'anti-politics' politician is as slavish in cultivating an image as any of his opponents.
So far, the three main parties, despite claiming to have 'heard' the message, and despite paying lip-service to the distrust of, and disconnection from politics, appear to have no mechanism for genuine listening. This will have to change if justice and progress are to be possible. It will nor be enough for mainstream politicians to attempt to contain and deride those attracted to Ukip. That will only confirm their plucky-patriots-standing-against-a-tide-of-political-correctness stance. Some serious thinking must be done as to how we can all combine to construct a politics in which no one is left behind and in which people are enabled to have far more input into the issues which directly affect their communities.
These election results do not represent an earthquake. But they do present complacency with a wake-up call. If Ukip are challenged on a wider range of their policies (or lack of them) and engaged as to how these are to be related to the common weal, seeking to wind society back to a narrower, less tolerant age will cease to be seen as a sign of rebellious authenticity.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen