Politics: just for geeks?

The sad truth: we aren't cool.

Picture the scene, a group of people, lit only by the glow of the TV screen, sit around watching the stats come in. A flurry of excitement is caused by some numbers going up and down on a flashy graphic. This is politics in Britain today, people, and it's not cool.

Tiny turnouts and general apathy point to a society that doesn't care about politics. Those who do have an increasingly niche interest, concerned with the strange behaviour of a select group of middle class white people. In fact, at times British politics bears a striking similarity to Dungeons and Dragons; arcane traditions played out according to strict rules, many involving silly outfits. This isn't how it works in France, or Greece, where politics means the left converging on Bastille, or anti-austerity riots in the streets. The French left had a massive party on a Sunday (a school night!) when Hollande got into power last week. In Europe, politics is (or can be) cool. Why isn't it here?

I realised this in 2010. It had taken so long for anyone to make up their mind that year that even the ultimate geeks had torn themselves away from the TV/computer screen and into the real world. When action finally happened, and Cameron went to the Queen, I was in a pub. We actually asked for them to turn the TV over from football to endless shots from the BBC helicopter hovering over the Mall of cars going to and from Buckingham Palace. It took hours, and there was, obviously, nothing to see. By the time we left everyone else in the pub was fuming, and incredulous. Over the next few months, my friends' eyes started glazing over as I fumed over the latest scandal, or made witty comments about Nick Clegg's falling poll ratings.

Then last week I worked as a poll clerk at the local elections. It became clear, as I added up ballot papers and worked out turnouts in my break, that I was a committed election geek, but worse, no-one else cared, and worse still, no-one actually in politics gets that no-one cares. The 301 people who turned up to vote that day wouldn't have been able to pick the members of the shadow cabinet out of a line up. Things happen that politicians think will be the end of them (Jeremy Hunt, are you listening?) and nothing happens, because most people haven't even noticed. Let's face it, they are all (both sides) a bunch of middle aged, white be-suited men who can't get a stir of excitement out of their wives, let alone the public. Ed Miliband, bless him, doesn't look like he ever went out dancing in his entire life.

In the X-Factor of the London mayoral election, the public chose Boris because they liked the way he looked, the way he swore, the way he occasionally resembles Stephen Fry. Make no mistake, Boris, incredible as it might seem, is cool. In a misogynistic, posh sort of way. And worryingly in an uncool government, that's all he needs.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.