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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser