Yes, that is Nigel Farage on top of an armoured car. Photo:Getty
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Are Ukip the victims of a media vendetta?

Ukip's supporters feel that they are done over by an hostile press. The reality is more complicated.

For the supporters of Ukip, there is such thing as bad publicity: the national media is out-to-get their party. That’s what Nigel Farage insists, the members of Ukip argue, and even what most of the population believe, according to the most recent YouGov survey. 

It may well be that this bias does exist, given the scale of media coverage surrounding Ukip and how Ofcom – the broadcast regulator – is now investigating Channel 4 after over 1000 complaints flooded in for their mockumentary Ukip: The First 100 Days.

But for professor of political science William Jennings, it's not clear that this media prejudice exists. “A lot of the attention to the party is arguably because Ukip is a new political force, so the media is trying to understand them, and explore what they mean for British politics.”

There is, he says, a perception among Ukip supporters that the media is against them, and more generally that the political class and media will do anything to stop the Ukip charge. “But this is an inherent feature of populist parties, that the rules are stacked against them.”

One grass roots supporter, Thomas Evans, does not believe it is just a perception: “There is a complete lack of even-handedness expressed to all parties. There are numerous examples of councillors from other parties who have made outrageous statements, only for that story not to have been reported the national media, as it would have been if Ukip.”

His, and many of his colleagues, main concern is that mainstream media are trying to portray Ukip as a party inundated with questionable individuals, “when in reality other representatives of other parties are making in many cases more serious comments and actions and these issues are going completely unreported in the mainstream media or reflected on in the same way as they would have been had it been Ukip.”

He isn’t completely wrong. In 2014, Labour councillor Gurpal Virdi was taken to court for indecently assaulting a young boy, which was only picked up by the local media and The Mirror. Later in 2014, a Liberal Democrat councillor for Skye, by the name of Drew Millar, resigned after being accused of sharing material from the far-right group Britain First on Facebook. The BBC and local northern press were the only media to report on this.

In January this year, Norwich City Labour councillor Deborah Gihawi quit her party after a race row. This was only reported up the Norfolk press. In Hampshire, a Conservative councillor and deputy mayor Michael Thierry compared flood prevention action to a ‘n***** in a woodpile’ at a council meeting. He is still serving, and the Daily Mail was the only national press to cover this.

This stands in contrast to the coverage of racist comments made by ex-Ukip councillor Roxanne Duncan, only two weeks later. Nonetheless, comments like these or those made by a Ukip councillor about how gay marriage legislation led to flooding, are different, says Professor Stephen Fielding, Director of the Centre for British Politics: “While comments made by all parties should be evenly scrutinised, I don’t think there is a media bias; I think if Labour or Conservative candidates councillors or whoever were saying some of the things that some of these Ukip candidates have been saying, they would be called out too.”
It, therefore, is not that the media is trying to undermine Ukip, but that the party is vulnerable because it is open in its views. Members have political opinions we are not used to being expressed in the mainstream, so when they are expressed they are picked up, says Professor Fielding.

The media is clearly fascinated with Ukip, and maybe gives them undue attention. “Arguably this has not done the party any harm. However, they are also very ill-disciplined and do not have the kind of resources that the major parties do to check who their candidates and supporters are, and what they are posting on social media,” says Dr. Nick Anstead, who specialises in political communication at the London School of Economics.

Of course, Ukip politicians have not been politically schooled. Professor Fielding believes this is one reason why they are focussed on. “They haven’t been educated as part of a party culture. I’m sure there’s a lot of people in the Labour, Conservative, Liberal party that have got slightly bizarre or eccentric views but they know not to express them in those public domains.”

This lack of education in their candidates and how they are selected could be the cause of a heavy press spotlight. “It may be the case that Ukip has endured more controversies about candidates because as a party organisation it has grown rapidly due to its success in a short space of time,” says Professor Jennings, “and as such doesn't have the same procedures in place for vetting candidates that much more established parties do.”

In any case, Ukip seem reasonably impervious to scandals and negative stories, says Dr. Anstead. This is probably because they can spin these types of events as fitting into a wider pattern to the “political establishment - major parties and media - trying to rubbish them and attack them.” 

Maybe Ukip should not be complaining about this either way. As Professor Jennings says, “Ukip benefited from this curiosity early on, so it's a bit inconsistent to now call it bias.” At this time last year there were plenty of people saying Ukip was getting more than its fair share of positive representation, with people in the Labour party and on the left complaining about the amount of time Nigel Farage and Ukip were getting for stories about them.

So “it cuts both ways,” says Professor Fielding, “Ukip was an outsider, a new party tapping in to support that hadn’t been articulated in the same way, and doing quite well - uniquely well in elections. It was getting disproportionate coverage for that reason. So you have to take the rough with the smooth.” 

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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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