As someone who’d happily describe themselves as a left wing extremist, it won’t surprise you that I find UKIP to be a deplorable party. And I’m not alone. Among students, a YouthSight poll shows support for UKIP in general elections tallies at just 5%, with the NUS Conference voting recently to condemn the party.. But when David Cameron and Ed Miliband say Nigel Farage would not be welcome in a TV debate, they demonstrate their divorce from democratic reality. A ComRes poll from the end of April showed UKIP to be 11 percentage points ahead in the coming EU elections, at 38% versus second place Labour’s 27%. UKIP might be deplorable, but its brand of beer-drinking, Brussels-bashing anti-politics has found favour among disillusioned voters. There is a very good chance UKIP will win the European elections, and on the basis of that mandate, Farage (with the help of legal threats) will ensure he gets to take part in any leaders’ debates next year.
As well he would. Audience polling confirms Farage slaughtered Clegg during their EU debates. Farage’s chappy charm has won him innumerable Question Time and Have I Got News For You appearances to such an extent that we might ask how culpable the BBC is in UKIP’s rise to popularity. While journalists are quick to pounce on the racists, misogynists and homophobes who make up UKIP’s councillors, much of this criticism seems to be neutered by Farage just being his commonsensical self on TV. With the Liberal Democracts tainted by coalition, and the Greens still seen as too airy-fairy, UKIP have succeeded in becoming the Third Party – the official insurgency – in the media narrative.
Thus Cameron and Miliband’s desire to exclude Farage from election debates is self-serving pragmatism, not principle. They might argue that UKIP has no Westminster seats, but it is a curious form of democracy that assumes you need power beforehand to take part in a key campaign event. Worse, this argument takes as read that first past the post is an accurate reflection of voter intention. While I do not believe it is the job of broadcasters to entrench a vision of UK elections as executive contests, so long as TV jousting matches between leaders direct voter behaviour at the constituency level, then insurgents like UKIP belong on our screens. Otherwise TV debates will just empower those already in power to guard the status quo and set the terms of democracy – Cameron refusing to debate Salmond over the Scottish independence is one example of this.
Yet UKIP is no genuine grassroots insurgency. The party is headed by an exbanker and most of its funding comes from a small number of wealthy donors like Julian Blackwell. But UKIP has still succeeded in appropriating the voice of the disenfranchised. In Scotland, the party is non-existent because anger at Westminster elitism and austerity has been channelled into support for populist SNP social democracy. In England, however, the disillusioned have nowhere else to turn. For instance, while I think immigration is wonderful because it’s healthy for economic and societal diversity, the politics of immigration is not analytic but interpersonal. It’s easy for me, an eminently employable science student, to dismiss a geezer moaning about Poles taking “our jobs” as racist. His concerns might well be wrongly-directed, might well be wrongheaded, but they are born of a deeply unequal society where every outcome from education to health divides along class lines. At this stage, to shut UKIP up is to ignore the group where support is now greatest – the old industrial working class, whose voices have long been silent.
But UKIP’s rightwing and racist policies show it is not the party to challenge the orthodoxy of austerity. Other than the SNP and Northern Irish parties, the Greens are the only other party offering an alternative and, despite having an MP, they probably won’t get invited to the TV debates either. If media outlets collude with politicians to maintain the current model of UK politics, then – as well as squashing UKIP – we will squash all the other authentic voices of discontent. We must not allow a cabal of Westminster professional politicians to dictate and determine the parameters of our democracy. UKIP’s anti-politics is driven by and challenges the reality that the UK is a pseudo-oligarchy, run by and for people like us – relatively rich, educated, internationally-minded metropolitan-dwellers – whose values are often at odds with the rest of the population.
Denying insurgents like UKIP the right to take part in TV debates only upholds the professional political class. When I lived at home, I was involved in local politics, dealing with issues like bus services for the elderly, rubbish skips and fishing. But if I actually want a political career, this counts for shit – instead I’d need to get myself down to OULC, and start pre-emptively hacking for a safe seat in Sheffield to steal from a local candidate. UKIP seems to me a symptom of people’s disgust at wonks patting each other on the back in Westminster in a pastiche of democracy, and excluding this disgust from the TV debate will further alienate the marginalized masses.
Hence the Tories with their bedroom tax and Labour with their benefit cap get no cookies from me for condemning UKIP’s fruitcakes. Anti-fascism campaigns are admirable and I enjoyed sending my UKIP leaflet back freepost, but we need to look deeper than the superficial Europhobia. While Europe enhances trade and supports marginalized communities, its immigration policy is inherently racist in that it means we must always prefer (usually white) Europeans when making job offers. My point – being pro-EU and opposing UKIP does not make you progressive, you have to look deeper, and resist our political system which created the void of weary apathy which generated the UKIP insurgency in the first place.
Though my gut instinct is still to silence UKIP, I am not one to deny the grievances, however illegitimate of a by-now large swathe of the population. If UKIP top the EU elections, it will be impossible to deny them a platform in a TV debate, without playing into their hands and denying the validity of EU democracy. The unfortunate rise of UKIP shows politicians need to become populists by engaging with integrity into the electorate’s concerns – we need to pick populism and democracy over elitism and oligarchy, and allow UKIP to take part in the TV election debates in 2015.
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