There is a myth, propagated by much of the commentariat, which says that the public are far to the right of the major parties on three issues – immigration, welfare and the European Union.
It is a myth that has been doing the rounds for some time now, but one which will no doubt be given another boost by today’s local election results.
Ukip is averaging 26 per cent of the vote in those wards where it is fielding candidates – proving, so the commentariat will conclude, that a large proportion of the electorate are just waiting for a credible politician of the right to reflect their concerns over, you guessed it, immigration, welfare and the European Union.
Like most myths this one has been around long enough to escape tough questioning – it tends instead to be assumed rather than argued, often by pundits of both the right and the left.
There is also some truth to it. Carry out a poll and the public will invariably cite one or all of the three issues above as ‘major’ concerns of theirs.
The important thing to recognise, however, is the difference between hard support for a policy and soft support for it – or in today’s context, the difference between giving a mandate to soft power (local councils) and hard power (the government of the country).
The old line which says the electorate like Tory policies until they find out that they are the policies of the Tory party applies doubly to Ukip. Voters may say they like UKIP’s policies – emotionally they do – but they are not so irresponsible as to ever hand anything resembling power to those espousing them. They may feel a desire to stop all immigration and retreat into an England of tripe shops and hanging, but in most cases they know, deep down, that they are just protesting, and that this is the realm of fantasy.
Head and heart
Confused? Bare with me.
Ukip represents the triumph of emotion over logic, something all of us are susceptible to from time to time; especially so when it involves evocations of the past.
Richard Dawkins was recently on the receiving end of a great deal of flak (rightly so, in my opinion) for questioning why the journalist Mehdi Hasan, an apparently ‘irrational’ religious believer, was published by a serious publication – the New Statesman.
Mehdi Hasan’s belief that “Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse” should have disqualified him from being taken seriously, according to Dawkins. Hasan was from that section of the population which is unreachable by logic – beyond the pale, in other words.
Now I wouldn’t dream of comparing Mehdi Hasan – a serious writer – to a supporter of Ukip. My point, however, is that all of us – even Richard Dawkins – simultaneously hold irrational and rational views. None of us are completely rational because we are, as Dawkin’s fellow ‘Horseman’ the late Christopher Hitchens phrased it, a poorly evolved mammalian species whose “pre-frontal lobes are too small and adrenal glands too big”.
So how does this apply to Ukip?
Well as George Orwell once said, “on the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.” Ukip appeals to the unpleasant instincts that still reside in a certain number of older, mostly male voters (43 per cent of UKIP’s support is from over 65s, with just 8 per cent from under 35s. 66 per cent is from men and 34 per cent is from women). Such are the demographics of the Ukip vote that many who have supported them in this week’s local elections will actually be dead by the time the 2015 election comes around. Many others will vote with their brains as well as with their ‘hearts’; they will vote on living standards and the economy rather than immigration or "political correctness gone mad".
The Ukip fling
Just as people don’t marry their holiday flings; or at least most people don’t, the electorate on the whole don’t vote in general elections based on their prejudices, but rather on what they believe will be good for them and their families.
Much as Ukip’s share of the vote in the 2004 European elections, when it came third, didn’t translate into votes in the May 2005 General Election, where they achieved just 2.3 per cent of the total votes cast, many voters will make a more thorough assessment before choosing who runs the country. The real danger is not that Ukip, an ultra-reactionary party of “cranks and gadflies”, achieves some kind of electoral breakthrough. It’s that in dragging the Tories to the right they will drag Labour and other progressives off with them.
Labour mustn’t go there. It doesn’t need to go there. Let the Tories drift off to the right; let them, with Lynton Crosby again at the helm, do a 2005 all over again, ranting about immigration, ‘scroungers’ and the European Union; and let them sink all over again, as they did back then.
Emotion represents only so much of our decision making, just as evocations of an imaginary past will only ever appeal to a limited number of people. Ukip represents the last gasp of a Britain that only ever existed in the imaginations of its supporters; and romanticism will only take you so far in politics as in life.