Saturday, 4 May 2013

Stop worrying about UKIP and learn to love Liberalism

So Nigel Farage thinks last Thursday’s local elections are a “game changer”? As any Liberal Democrat with a rueful memory of ‘liberal revivals’ could remind him, one swallow doesn’t make a summer.

To capture around 25% of the vote from a standing start is very good going. But to put that in perspective, the turnout, as usual in local elections, was only about 25 to 30%. 25% of that is only about 7% of the whole electorate. The fact that 7% hate foreigners, gays, wind farms and everything else that’s happened since 1963 is neither remarkable nor a threat – the only surprise is that this percentage isn’t higher.

What UKIP did well was to give that 7% a reason to vote. In marketing parlance, UKIP has a clear USP (described by Stephen Tall on Liberal Democrat Voice as “stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off-pull-up-the-drawbridge-nothing-against-them-personally-but-we’re-full-and-another-thing-health-and-safety-some-of-my-best-friends-are–all-the-parties-are-the-same-I’d-emigrate-if-I-could”). This USP may be just a mishmash of bar-room prejudices but it chimes with the gut feelings of a substantial minority of voters. Furthermore, such voters were not deterred by the Tory-inspired media hatchet job on UKIP candidates – if anything, the disapproval of the political establishment would have spurred them on.

But UKIP has done more than simply provide an outlet for Daily Express readers’ prejudices. Nigel Farage is surely onto something when he says:
“People have had enough of the three main parties, who increasingly resemble each other. The differences between them are very narrow and they don’t even speak the same language that ordinary folk out there, who are struggling with housing and jobs, speak.”
Voters have been offered little real choice since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ‘end of history’, which cemented a neoliberal consensus (TINA). The replacement of ideological conflict by managerialism paved the way for the rise of the identikit professional politician and the adoption by such politicians of triangulation. And these politicians speak in an abnormal language of party mantras and robotic slogans.

In contrast, UKIP is not afraid to use plain language, challenge the consensus or stand up for what it believes in. The question for Liberal Democrats is why they don’t display a similar level of assertiveness and pride in their values, which would enthuse and mobilise their own base. The answer is that their leader Nick Clegg firmly believes in the old consensus, as his latest appeal to the ‘centre ground’ demonstrates. This is all of a piece with his increasingly technocratic and managerialist approach, his insistence that he is above ideology and ‘pragmatic’, and the repeated implication that his views are somehow obvious or inevitable and therefore beyond argument.

This is a far cry from the 2010 general election campaign, when Clegg openly criticised the fundamental failings of the political system and promised not just change but that the Liberal Democrats would be that change. In a complete reversal, he now rejects that approach as nothing more than being a ‘party of protest’ and therefore part of a history that must be jettisoned. Instead, he presents the act of assimilation with the old establishment consensus as a sign of political maturity.

Clegg’s ‘centre ground’ strategy could not be more wrong. As Tory MP Bernard Jenkin recently pointed out:
Politicians often talk about “the centre ground” of British politics, as though there is some big bell curve of voters in the middle where we have to be in order to get elected. The three main parties are crowded there in the facile belief that being anti-immigration, anti-EU, pro-business, tax cuts and tough on crime is “right wing”; while more spending, concern about the poor, pro-EU, pro-human rights and CND is “left wing”, and therefore sensible moderate people weigh up these “extremes” and finish up somewhere in between. And, of course, most people are sensible.
The Clinton/Blair people called it “triangulation”. The architects of Conservative modernisation copied it and made David Cameron in this respect the “heir to Blair”, but the result is that all the parties are now losing to “extremes”. Eastleigh showed there is no such thing as the centre ground – a great pile of voters in the middle waiting to be harvested by politicians’ cynical positioning. Nor is there a magic bullet labelled “immigration” or “Europe” either.
Public opinion is both diverse and changeable – it is neither clustered round a settled consensus nor immutable. Hence converging on an illusory ‘centre ground’ does not increase the Liberal Democrats’ appeal but makes them seem indistinguishable from the other mainstream parties. Clegg’s claim to be more centrist than the other centrists is not a USP but merely competing in the blandness stakes. Worse than that, the dominant consensus of the past thirty years has been fatally damaged by the financial crisis and is due for replacement. By clinging to that sinking ship, Clegg risks taking his party down to the bottom with all hands.

The alternative is not to realign with UKIP. As Mark Pack’s bar chart demonstrates, of the three mainstream parties in the local elections, the Liberal Democrats suffered least at the hands of UKIP. The Liberal Democrats have no tactical need to trim on issues like Europe or immigration (even if to do so were morally acceptable, which it isn’t).

There is only one way forward for the Liberal Democrats, and that is to stop banging on about the ‘centre ground’, stop apologising for being liberal, stop trimming and, instead, come out, loud and proud, for enlightened, cosmopolitan and tolerant values. Only then can the party build its base and provide supporters with a compelling reason to get off their arses and vote with the same enthusiasm that UKIP supporters did last Thursday.

Postscript (1): Max Dunbar’s blog post about UKIP is well worth reading (with thanks to Jonathan Calder).

Postscript (2): See Anthony Wells’s analysis of UKIP at UK Polling Report.

Postscript (3): See Chris Dillow’s blog post, which explains why UKIP is not the anti-establishment force it purports to be.

Postscript (4): See A Very Public Sociologist (writing just after the Eastleigh by-election), in particular the quotation from Lord Ashcroft’s analysis of UKIP voters. They are driven by outlook rather than policies.

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