UKIP needs to learn to manage expectations

After Farage's promise to "cause an earthquake", anything less than first in the European elections will be deemed a failure - and the polls suggest Labour may well win.

For months, the default assumption in Westminster and at the bookmakers has been that UKIP will win the European elections in May. It is a belief that Nigel Farage has done much to encourage, regularly promising to "cause an earthquake" by vanquishing Labour and the Tories. The polls, however, continue to tell a stubbornly different story. All three of the surveys conducted in the last month (by YouGov, Survation and ICM) have shown Labour in front, with today's ICM poll for the Guardian putting UKIP down in third place on 20 per cent, with the Tories on 25 per cent and Labour on 35 per cent (although it is worth noting that ICM's decision to discount the preferences of 50 per cent of those who didn't vote last time may have artificially depressed UKIP's share). 

UKIP figures insist they are not fazed by these figures, pointing out that the party traditionally gains heavily once the campaign proper begins. In the case of 2009 European elections, it only moved into second place a few weeks before polling day. On 8 May 2009, a YouGov poll put them on just 7 per cent, 15 points behind Labour and 12 points behind the Lib Dems. But by 3 June 2009, the day before the election, they were on 18 per cent, two points ahead of Labour and three points ahead of the Lib Dems. They eventually polled 16.5 per cent, finishing 0.8 per cent ahead of Labour. 

But while the same may be true this time round, some are rightly beginning to ask whether the party has failed to manage expectations. My own prediction has long been for a narrow Labour victory, with Miliband's party benefiting from simultaneous elections in all 32 London boroughs and all 36 metropolitan boroughs, areas where its core vote is strongest. Unlike in 2009, when UKIP was far less well known, it will not enjoy such a large publicity surge, or be able to exploit the expenses scandal, which broke just a few weeks before polling day. the year has not started as they would have wanted. In addition, while Farage has long vowed to turn the election into a referendum on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, the dearth of migrants since the transitional controls were lifted on 1 January means he may find it harder to do so.

The danger for UKIP is that, owing to Farage's loose rhetoric, finishing second will now be viewed as a failure. As party donor Stuart Wheeler astutely observed in an interview with the New Statesman last year, "I’m getting slightly nervous because people seem to be so confident we’ll win, it will almost look like a failure if we don’t." There are signs that some in the party now recognise the need to engage in some shrewd expectation management. Rather than echoing Farage's prediction of an "earthquake", UKIP's new director of communications, former Daily Express columnist Patrick O'Flynn, is speaking of how the elections will be "a tough fight" and the party takes "nothing for granted". He would be wise to encourage his leader to adopt a similarly modest tone. 

The same should apply to the party's likely performance in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election on Thursday. Again, largely thanks to Farage, the belief that UKIP is on the brink of a parliamentary breakthrough (including, or even especially, in Labour-held seats) has been planted in the minds of Westminster pundits and betmakers. Toby Young, for instance, recently wrote:

It will be enormously helpful if Ukip wins the forthcoming by-election in the constituency of Wythenshawe and Sale East. That is not as far-fetched as you might think, as Mike Smithson points out in this post for PoliticalBetting.com. Since 2011, Ukip have come second in five by-elections – Eastleigh, South Shields, Barnsley Central, Rotherham and Middlesbrough – and the party did well in local elections in Wythenshawe and Sale East in 2012. Last night, Lord Ashcroft tweeted that betting on the outcome of the by-election had been temporarily suspended, suggesting that the bookies were busy recalculating the odds of a Ukip victory after several large bets had been placed on precisely that outcome.

The extent to which these forecasts were off-target was revealed when a poll by Lord Ashcroft put Labour 46 points ahead of Farage's party.

To finish second in a seat where it polled just 3 per cent in 2010 would be a significant achievement for UKIP. But somehow the party has allowed itself to be placed in a position where anything less than first is deemed a failure. If it is to retain momentum, it needs this to change. Indeed, it is when UKIP learns to play the expectations game that we will know it has truly arrived as a professional political party.

Nigel Farage will have some explaining to do if UKIP finishes second in the European elections. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder