Are UKIP a lost Tory tribe or masked villains? Cameron needs to decide

The Conservatives are caught between advertising their cultural affinity with UKIP and denouncing its members as closet extremists.

The Conservative Party needs to decide whether it thinks UKIP is a respectable outfit. (Other parties also need to make that choice but, in the run up to county council elections this week, it is the Tories who are feeling the most heat from a UKIP challenge.)

Broadly speaking, there seem to be two different approaches the Conservatives are taking to Nigel Farage’s insurgent rabble: they present them as a lost tribe or as masked villains.

The "lost tribe" hypothesis is set out with customary ebullience in a column by Boris Johnson in today’s Daily Telegraph.

According to this view, Farage and friends are really Tories who got lost on the way to the polling booth. They are capitalising on general contempt for politics and mid-term distaste for the incumbent administration that happens to be Conservative. The good news, Johnson argues, is that Ukip’s success is therefore misallocated vindication of Tory politics. The best response is a gentle cajoling of errant rightwing voters back towards the mother ship in time for a general election.

The "masked villain" hypothesis is that UKIP are a pernicious force; a sinister band of far-right nutters who have tricked or seduced sections of the electorate with lazy populism. This is the view implied by Ken Clarke’s attack on Farage’s outfit over the weekend as a "fringe party" of the right attracting "waifs and strays" as candidates.

Conservative headquarters has been looking at some of the people standing for UKIP in Thursday’s poll in the hope of exposing them as closet extremists. It turns out the party has picked up some former British National Party members and activists. UKIP's official line is that fascists are not welcome and that the Tories are smearing them. The natural riposte is that a party that cannot recognise a distinction between smear and scrutiny has something to hide.

There is some overlap in the lost tribe and masked bandit views. Both see UKIP voters as natural Tories. The difference is that the former woos them back by emphasising proximity, the latter by exposing difference. The lost tribe view says "we are all Tories really, why vote for the second rate imitation when you could have the real thing." The masked villain view says: "Look what lies behind the façade of respectability – behold the beast! recoil in horror!"

Both approaches have their hazards. The danger of the lost tribe approach is that it ignores or plays down the extremist element. If, for example, Boris Johnson believes Farage is really a Tory and that many UKIP types are really Conservatives, where does he file the more conspicuously bonkers element? Presumably Johnson doesn’t want to blur the boundary between ideological fellow travelers and the kind of person who blames Zionist bankers for the Holocaust? 

Meanwhile, the danger of the lost tribe hypothesis is that swing voters who already see Tories as a bit swivel-eyed and intolerant will find confirmation of that prejudice in the assertion that Faragism is the natural continuation of the Conservative spectrum. That vital constituency of people who in 2010 were not persuaded that David Cameron had brought his party to happy accommodation with the 21st Century are unlikely to have their minds changed in 2015 if they are told voting Tory is like voting UKIP-lite.

But then, the danger in the more aggressive anti-Farage approach is that it risks insulting that section of the electorate already flirting with Ukip. Trying to tug at the supposed mask in the hope of exposing something uglier beneath it only works if the hidden beast agrees to be noisily beastly for prolonged periods. The odd BNP member turning up as a council candidate embarrasses UKIP, but Farage himself simply isn’t a Nazi and no amount of sneaking up behind him and trying to pin swastikas on his back is going to change that. What’s more, Ukip like nothing more than to be able to say that the mainstream political and media establishment is closing ranks to attack them because it is afraid.

An unmasking strategy assumes a degree of moral authority on the part of the unmasker that voters don’t accept. When the Tories – or indeed Labour and Liberal Democrats – accuse UKIP of not being the respectable and credible organisation it pretends to be, they take as their benchmark of respectability and credibility a political settlement that, by definition, UKIP-leaning voters have rejected. People are drawn to UKIP out of anxiety, dismay and loathing of the more familiar parties. Why would they then turn to those parties for their professional guidance about what is and isn’t an appropriate receptacle for their protest?

The Tories can advertise their cultural affinity with UKIP and alienate voters who see Farage and friends as the very caricature of everything they rejected about Conservatism in its fly-blown descent from power through the mid-90s. Or they can attack UKIP as an ugly deception practised by closet extremists – an approach that risks insulting chunks of the core Tory vote. There is always the possibility that they end up doing both.   

Nigel Farage shows a mug that was presented to him before signing a book of condolence for Margaret Thatcher at the museum in Grantham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.