Ukip needs to take a chill pill
From the Sunday Telegraph.
Believe it or not, Ukip needs to lighten up. That might seem like an unnecessary request. No other leader is as irresistibly funny as Nigel Farage — the very embodiment of the strategist’s dream of a politician you’d want to have a pint with. Or two. Either way, the Ukip leader has pulled off the unlikely double of being an MEP people can name and a politician you wouldn’t mind knocking on your door.
But what goes for the leader does not necessarily go for the party membership, and it is the fellow travellers who could prove Ukip’s undoing. The problem is, in fact, germane to all new parties. At the core is often a group of savvy politicians whose selling point is their newness. Because they’ve not been around long and their message is a vague opposition to all that has gone before, they appeal to a large number of voters with disparate grievances. A strong central theme holds the whole thing together. In Ukip’s case, that used to be Euroscepticism. But it has evolved into a broader, rather exciting, conservative populism.
The trouble is, a party needs more than just leaders. Slowly, it draws to itself activists who are essentially refugees from mainstream politics. Most of them are reasonable people. Many are not. For example, when Mr Farage made the humane case for accepting refugees from Syria, the Ukip Facebook page came alight with angry commentary. “Have you been smoking crack with Toronto’s mayor?” asked one. Another: “Sorry nigel dont agree. This country is full now but with more scum headed our way in a few days.” And another: “keep out of UK its full up ENGLISH are the ethnic minority now.” Someone even asked whether Nigel was being bankrolled by “the Muslims”.
I’ve experienced this unpleasantness at first hand. I have been making a series of tongue-in-cheek online videos for the Telegraph that offer “five top tips” for the party leaders on how not to mess things up in 2014. The one I filmed for Ukip was intended to be as light-hearted as Mr Farage himself: keep Godfrey Bloom under lock and key, avoid Scotland, read your own manifesto. The emails and thousands of comments that followed contained personal vitriol of the sort you rarely get from any other party supporter — and that would probably horrify reasonable Ukip sympathisers. Common themes were my ugliness, youth, class and sexuality. [We moderate comments, but you’ll find plenty of belters on YouTube].
I’ve encountered this kind of overreaction before. In 2012, I followed campaigners for the libertarian Republican candidate Ron Paul around the presidential primaries in the US. I noticed that they operated at a level of anger unknown among the other candidates. The “Paulites” marginalised themselves, because they took the mildest criticism as a sign of a conspiracy to do them down. That created a vicious cycle: the more they bashed the media, the more negative the media’s coverage was, and the more the Paulites were convinced they were being victimised. They could not see their own contribution to their downfall.
To come back to Ukip: why should any reporter write nicely about a party whose supporters throw homophobic insults at them? Especially when “Ukippers” effectively write their own negative headlines. It wasn’t journalists who made Godfrey Bloom refer to women as “sluts”. It wasn’t the media that made Lord Pearson forget the contents of Ukip’s own manifesto. And it is far too easy to find one of the party’s activists willing to say something derogatory about a minority.
Like millions of Britons, I find Ukip’s message attractive. The middle classes are too squeezed, Europe is too big, the establishment is too distant — and the free-wheeling, jolly patriotism of Nigel Farage is a tonic in these wet, cold months of austerity. But I don’t like racism, sexism, Islamophobia or homophobia, and I won’t put an X in a box for a party that attracts bigots. Ukip has to kick out those people and instill greater discipline from the centre. And some of its activists need to adopt Mr Farage’s joie de vivre. As was so often said to Ron Paul’s US warriors: “Take a chill pill, guys.”
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