It was another bad weekend for Ukip. First one of its MEPs quit for the Tories, fuming that party leader Nigel Farage runs the group as a vanity project behind his jocular man-of-the-people pose. Then a senior official hired to keep “all the bad stuff” from seeping into the public domain was revealed to have said the party was proud to stand up for bigots and that the National Health Service was the biggest waste of money in Britain.
The party fought back by saying it had suspended Amjad Bashir over various nefarious allegations, all of which he denies. But for all the excitement they create in Westminster, defections rarely matter much in the long term beyond indicating a general drift of direction in politics. Far more damaging are the stories swirling around party secretary Matthew Richardson. His talk about representing bigots exposes again the nasty underbelly of this insurgency, while describing the NHS as the “Reichstag bunker of socialism” displays the gaping internal divisions between libertarians and ultra-conservatives.
Party economics chief Patrick O'Flynn says some of his colleagues on the libertarian right are “completely away with the fairies”. Yet for all Ukip’s torturous twisting on health, the comments by former City barrister Richardson are not that far removed from statements made by his party leader. Meanwhile the optimistic outlook of Douglas Carswell, the party’s first elected MP, sits ever more uneasily with the misanthropic pessimism of many of his new colleagues.
Deep divisions are inevitable when a party of protest rides a wave of popular discontent to become a potent political force. This was one reason why the Conservative reaction to Ukip’s rise was so flawed. David Cameron was right when he said it was a party of fruitcakes and closet racists but the Tories should have continued to dismiss them as an unpleasant irritant. Instead they became so spooked by Ukip’s surge - fanned by some fellow-travellers in their own ranks - that they shifted onto the insurgency’s terrain and started adopting some of its miserablist positions. Despite a stream of electoral rebuffs, they continued this self-defeating strategy until finally seeing its flaws a few weeks ago.
Now similar issues confront the left. The Greens are soaring in the polls and attracting thousands of new members with anti-austerity populism, exploiting the disarray over election debates to raise their profile still further. Despite a leader who makes Ed Miliband seem like a smooth media star, this fringe force is causing consternation in Labour ranks - even before yesterday’s study showing their growing appeal could hit Labour’s chances in 22 key seats in the General Election.
The challenge for Labour under its insecure leadership is how to respond to this sudden threat. There is the same nervous mixture of warning about wasted votes - a stance that fails to take account of our altered political landscape - while wondering about stealing some Green policies. Already siren voices such as Peter Hain are calling for the party to be more “radical” in response, suggesting effective income tax rates of 62 per cent on higher earners and ramping up VAT on luxury goods.
Other leading figures claim the two parties share the same values, while left-wing commentators loudly demand the adoption of tatty old comfort blanket policies.
But Labour would be foolish to flirt with the Greens. They should learn from Tory mistakes and do the precise opposite by pointing out all the absurdities and inconsistencies lurking behind their cuddly image. This is not a tough task. The Greens are a largely conservative group, offering a strange mix of economic unreality combined with social policies that fuse heavy-handed state intervention with streaks of liberalism. Their economic approach such as free basic incomes for everyone would backfire and bankrupt Britain, especially given their antipathy to economic growth, while a plethora of daft policies range from support for homeopathy to the abolition of zoos, free condoms for all and special taxes for superstars.
This Green surge is a mirror image of the Ukip rise - not least in how people with disparate views rally round a flag of protest. The consequent splits are a common feature of green politics and can be seen clearly again in Brighton and Hove, the one council they control. It is riven with bitter divisions between the “mangoes” (green exteriors but yellow, like Liberal Democrats, in the middle) and “watermelons” (green skins but red in the middle). Given that hardliners joined picket lines with workers protesting decisions taken by their own group and mediators had to be called in for reconciliation at one point, little wonder they are so incompetent the city has ended up with one of the worst recycling records in the country.
Young, idealistic voters are flocking to the Greens for the same simple reason anxious older people are supporting Ukip and the SNP is soaring in Scotland - because of deep and understandable dissatisfaction with Westminster and its petty tribal politics. Labour can lurch left just as the Tories tacked right to tackle insurgents, but all this does is fuel the discontent, further undermine their brand and drive them from moderate voters who form the bulk of the electorate. Ultimately both parties face a far greater challenge: the need to prove they retain relevance in the modern world and show voters they still deserve to be entrusted with the governance of this country. Otherwise they deserve to be doomed.
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