How to deal with a problem like Ukip? Take them head-on

Calling Farage's party racist allows it to play the victim card. So attack policies instead

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The Independent Online

Oh dear. How is it that politicians today get it so wrong so often?

The guilty party this morning was Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader.

His error was in berating Huw Edwards and the BBC for reporting on the Ukip surge because “elections in this country are decided on the number of councillors not share of the vote”.

That’s indeed true, and something that any Liberal Democrat will be only too well aware of given that their share of the vote is never representative of the number of seats they end up with.

But to dismiss Ukip because their support was supposedly “patchy” and they didn’t get all that many councillors compared to the Lib Dems made him look ridiculous. So did attempting to shoot the messenger (Huw).

The fact remains that one in four of the people who turned out yesterday (at the time of writing) placed their X in the Ukip box. And that party is going end up with a small, but decent, number of councillors.

Pretending that the Ukip surge doesn’t exist isn’t the way to respond to that. It’s the see no evil hear no evil speak no evil approach, and tells the people that voted for Ukip that they’re being ignored by the Westminster elite. Again.

It actually might be a shame that Ukip hasn’t got more councillors. Protest parties don’t always fare too well when they actually get into office, when the thrill of the election campaigning is over and they have to get down to the drudgery of committee meetings; overseeing planning applications, bin collection and discussing what to do about the persistent fouling of the local park by irresponsible dog owners.

In the meantime, why not do something original and attack Mr Farage’s polices? Put him on the defensive for a change. Ask him how much, for example, the army of foreign students that we host contributes to the economy when everyone’s favourite populist starts talking immigration. We charge them massive fees, without which universities would have to soak our kids even more than they already do.

Ask him how many multinationals are going to come to this country, bringing their factories and jobs, if they don’t feel they can get their people in where they want them. Like the Japanese car firms which do a fantastic job, provide all too rare skilled, well paid manufacturing jobs but whose owners are getting decidedly twitchy about the immigration policies of David Cameron, let alone Mr Farage.

These are issues on which Mr Farage shouldn’t be allowed to wriggle out of with his traditional bluster. They matter. Take him on. Scrutinise his policies.

But you can’t try and ignore him any more. He’s here. We may not like his party all that much, but it’s not going anywhere.

Ultimately the Ukip surge may indeed represent a classic protest vote. Sadly, people still don’t see that local elections count for much. Far too many people view them as little more than an opportunity to punish the misdeeds of their representatives in Westminster.

When the vote “counts”, at least in the mind of the electorate, not only will turnout be bigger but the siren call of Mr Farage and his party will be much easier to resist. Don’t vote Ukip or you’ll let those bastards in (delete as applicable for the identity of the bastards because it’s not just Tories that are losing votes to Ukip).

But until then, the mainstream parties might need to rethink their approaches. They’ve tried calling Ukip racist. Doesn’t work. It allows Ukip to play the victim card. They’ve tried dismissing them. Also doesn’t work. They’ve been around too long, they’ve been picking up too many votes, without all that much media coverage too, at least initially. So that, Mr Hughes, hasn’t worked either.

So try something novel. Take them on. They’ve already managed to make themselves look bad on, for example, gay marriage, in a cynical attempt to create division in the Tory party. There are plenty of other policies they have espoused that don’t stand up to a great deal of scrutiny. So, Mr Hughes, and the rest of you, point that out. You’re experienced debaters. Well you should be.

It might also help if the mainstream parties gave thought to the other issue that Ukip taps into, the feeling that Westminster is dominated by an out of touch elite of professional politicians.

Labour may have made a start on this with Emma Lewell-Buck in South Shields, a local social worker who went to the University of Northumbria and comes from the area. She didn’t look particularly slick or polished or Westminster when she got up to make her victory speech. A few more like her might be an idea.