Why politicians don’t understand UKIP

Watching UK Education Secretary Michael Gove trying to respond the rise of UKIP after last Thursday’s local elections put me in mind of someone who doesn’t have a clue. And in listening to other politicians from other parties groping for some means to explaining and stopping the UKIP juggernaut, I realised he was not alone.

Basically, the established political class will never understand the UKIP phenomenon as long as they remain trapped in their conventional frame of reference which seems to suggest that politics is about policy and ‘listening’ to people.

My take on the rise of UKIP is heavily influenced by a book I am currently reading – Herd by Mark Earls – which looks to explain human behaviour in social terms. In contrast to Brian in The Life of Brian, according to Earls’ hypothesis we are not all individuals. We are social animals first and foremost. We copy, we interact, we are incredibly sensitive to the signals (verbal and non-verbal) of others which strongly influence our behaviour.

What politicians don’t understand is that the appeal of UKIP has little to do with its policies (assuming, that is, it has more than one – which seems to be that the UK leaves the European Union so that it can better control immigration, deciding who to let in and who to reject).

Now, this meta-policy will have attracted followers in the early days but common sense would suggest that the reasons for the rise in the popularity of UKIP (at the ballot box) must be more complex and less rational than that.

What UKIP have successfully done is tap into widespread disillusion with politics, politicians and the political process. Some of their support (according to commentators and politicians who actively canvassed on the doorstep) is coming from people who haven’t voted for years. A vote for UKIP is a vote against the status quo, against the professional political elite, against the chronic existential futility we feel, exacerbated by the global financial collapse of 2008.

UKIP, in some ways, is an anti-party. It appears shambolic and amateurish at times. The media have had a field day pointing out the overt racism, sexism, naivety and downright crankiness of UKIP politicians – part of the establishment’s efforts to discredit the party – and have found instead that this is not deterring voters. In fact the opposite appears to be happening. The mocking tone is muted now. Other parties have professionalised, organised, managed and controlled to the point of blandness. Desperate to appeal to everyone (i.e. by not putting people off) they increasingly appeal to no-one. The three main parties – Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats – are now an undifferentiated mix. Welcome to vanilla politics.

UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, can hardly open his mouth without putting his foot in it – and yet here is a party leader who admits his mistakes because he is an ‘ordinary bloke’. He drinks beer and smokes. He doesn’t tell people how to live their lives. He has a simple message, which does resonate, but some of that resonance is after the fact. Voters will have gone to UKIP for many reasons and will have adopted its belief that the European Union is a bad thing because economic immigration is lowering wages, keeping British workers out of jobs, watering down British identity, attracting criminal gangs…a whole panoply of negative social effects which play on the fears and anxieties of white British voters in particular. Those fears and anxieties around immigration have largely been ignored by politicians of the main parties in the past. Now they are in a kind of arms race of ‘tough on immigration’ policies, constantly trying to outdo each other with new wheezes to restrict numbers. For those who believe in the UK’s continuing membership of the EU, their tough stance is somewhat emasculated by the fact that membership of the EU means signing up to the free movement of people within its borders. The lack of engagement by and with the EU is a key part of UKIP’s popularity – British people (an island race suspicious of foreigners) just don’t know what the EU is for other than ‘diluting British sovereignty and (mis)appropriating decision making powers’ to a remoter, less accountable level. UKIP taps shamelessly into this bewilderment and hostility.

But of course, the voter, being a herd animal, sees through all the cynical bluster of the political establishment. What attracts him or her to Farage is his absolute belief in what he is saying. Leaving the EU in order to control immigration is what he stands for. The political establishment laugh at UKIP because it doesn’t, say, have coherent policies in other areas of British life – who knows what their policies on the economy, health and education are? But it doesn’t matter. Nigel Farage stands for something. Other politicians stand for anything they think will get them elected – hence the immigration policy ‘arms race’. Their careful calibrations of what voters are thinking so that they can come up with policies that will attract votes is doomed to failure because that’s not how people operate. They want to put their faith in people who believe in something – even if that belief is flawed. The political contortions of Labour leader Ed Miliband and his rather pathetic policy statements (‘we will ensure that everyone will be able to get an appointment with their GP within 48 hours’ – eh?) shows him to be a follower, not a leader. If the British electorate said they wanted their politicians to run naked into the sea shouting ‘I am a walrus’ in order to win their vote I feel Ed Miliband would be at the front of the line, shouting the loudest.

So the appeasing message to the British voter from a desperate political establishment eager to quash the challenge of UKIP is: We are listening. We hear what you are saying. We understand. Well, guys and gals, you don’t. You think it’s about policies, stupid. It’s not. It’s about standing for something and having the courage of your convictions. Farage has stuck to his convictions through everything the political establishment has thrown at him – which is quite a lot. His motley party is in stark contrast to the vanilla fudge of the other parties who have spent years homogenising themselves, photo-shopping their image to remove all blemishes, and mistakenly thinking that appealing to voters means spinning like a weathercock in a tornado.

Until the UK political establishment understands the workings of the Herd it will not only misunderstand the nature of the problem; it will miscalculate the solution to the UKIP problem.