Whatever Godfrey Bloom's fate, Ukip is still giving me sleepless nights

Maybe Ukip are a one-man band and a one-trick pony, but Nigel Farage is a reckless man with a very dangerous trick.

This was the week when Nigel Farage was going to prove to everyone that Ukip is neither a one-man band nor a one-trick pony. He succeeded in achieving the precise opposite. The delegates unleashed on Westminster’s Central Hall appeared less like a coherent political party and more like the cast of Are You Being Served on a reunion tour. Perhaps inevitably, events unfolded – or unravelled, to be more accurate – at pace and with hilarity. At times it felt like one was watching the entire boxed set of The Thick of It on fast forward.

It all kicked off with a Channel 4 exposé the evening before the conference. Michael Crick uncovered evidence of a rather heated teachers’ meeting, during Farage’s Dulwich College days, assessing his suitability as a prefect, complete with a letter of objection describing him as someone who publicly professed views which were "racist and neo-fascist". Farage’s defence seems to boil down to: 'Ah! Youth.'

By the beginning of the conference proper, a heavily made-up Farage, sweating under the lights – an apt metaphor for his "everyman" image melting under closer public scrutiny – made a keynote speech which even the Daily Mail described as "flat and managerial". Meanwhile, Ukip MEP and senior spokesman Godfrey Bloom was busy at a fringe meeting describing women who do not clean behind the fridge as "sluts".

Questioned about it outside the hall, Bloom said he was only joking and called the reporter a "sad little man". His aide tried to suggest that Bloom had used the term in its more antiquated meaning of "slovenly". The two versions of events are, of course, mutually exclusive; if the word was used without its double entendre connotations, there is no joke. Challenged by Michael Crick over the lack of any black faces among the dozens which adorned the front of Ukip’s conference brochure, Bloom proceeded to smack him over the head, with said brochure.

Cue Nigel Farage trotting out the usual excuses about Godfrey being a colourful character. LOLZ. As if this were not an MEP and the party’s defence spokesman – their defence spokesman, for pity’s sake – but a hapless Carmen Miranda impersonator who wandered into the hall by accident. Cue Diane James explaining that, yes, the party may attract some controversial characters, but the thorough vetting process meant only the best made it to their European election candidate list; she conveniently glossed over the fact that Bloom was one who had made it through this vetting process. What were the controversial characters who didn’t make it like?

As it became clear that the usual flannel would not fly, Bloom had the party whip withdrawn. Irritated, he continued to give interviews. They included one explaining that if journalists showed "impertinence", they could expect much worse than Crick and one in which he asked the BBC’s Allegra Stratton "has your mother never called you a slut?", then proceeded to tell her she had no sense of humour.

As was, perhaps, foreshadowed by the fact that Ukip shared Central Hall during their conference with a Carry On Memorabilia Convention, the comedy gold continued to flow the next day. A personal highlight was the anti-immigration speech, by first generation immigrant Amjad Bashir, which opened with "I wasn't born in Yorkshire, but I came as soon as I could". By the end of the two-day fiasco, "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" seemed like a rather charitable assessment.

Now the laughter has died down, however, it is time to assess seriously the politics of the Ukip "phenomenon". I am not comforted by the fact Ukip has finally withdrawn their whip from Godfrey Bloom. Instead, I note that he is the fifth MEP out of their 13 elected to have the whip withdrawn. Instead, I worry about the fact that he was the best they could muster after their thorough vetting process. Instead, I question why the whip was not withdrawn when he addressed the European Parliament while drunk, or when he said employers would have to be mad to employ single, young women, or when he referred to the whole of the developing world as “bongo bongo land”.

I am not really concerned about Nigel Farage’s reported racist comments in 1981. I am concerned about his outrageous 2005 manifesto pledge to check any incoming migrants for communicable diseases. His alleged youthful neo-fascist views give me little pause for thought. His current association with neo-fascist parties at the European level gives me sleepless nights.

Before the conference Farage mused that they have no real ambition to form a government, but that – who knows? – maybe in 2015 they will find themselves holding "the balance of power”. In this age of coalitions, how many Godfrey Blooms lurk in Farage’s shadow, ready to assume ministerial posts? Maybe Ukip are a one-man band and a one-trick pony, but he is a reckless man with a very dangerous trick.

Nigel Farage waves after addressing delegates at the UK Independence Party conference in Westminster on 20 September. Photograph: Getty Images.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.