Nightmare drinking pals, Fergie’s good fortune and why Ukip has already peaked

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

In the wake of Ukip’s success in the county council elections, I dug out an article I published in early 2005 in my final months as New Statesman editor. Written by three academics, it was headlined “One in five Britons could vote far right”. At the time, this seemed an alarming prediction.

The article’s warnings were based on opinion polls, focus groups and voting in Euro and London elections. It argued that supporters of Ukip and the BNP shared “similar views and fears”. The two parties drew on the same “reservoir” of potential support. The authors reckoned this amounted to about 20 per cent of the electorate and that it had existed at least since Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968. A wider range of elections, with differing voting systems, had made voters’ preferences more apparent.

You will perhaps be surprised that I still don’t think we should worry. On the contrary, I believe Ukip has probably peaked, having exhausted the “reservoir” of voters who can stomach the far-right world view. It has also benefited from the Liberal Democrats disqualifying themselves as a “protest” party. But as a vehicle for protest votes, its performance is weak by historical standards. In a string of midterm by-elections –Orpington (1962), Sutton and Cheam (1972), Crosby (1981), Eastbourne (1990), Ribble Valley (1991) – the Liberals, Lib Dems or SDP won around half the vote, as did George Galloway in Bradford West last year. Ukip’s best shot so far is 28 per cent in Eastleigh.

Moreover, extremist parties, once they win council seats, are quickly found out by the voters. The BNP has lost all but two of the council seats it won during the last parliament. Voters discover that it’s no use electing politicians who “speak their mind” but lack the diplomatic and persuasive skills to get anything done.

What is the point of putting people on Lincolnshire county council because they want to take us out of Europe and stop immigration? Will they fortify Skegness? At the next election, they will be judged on whether they got the potholes mended.

Pub farrago

One puzzling aspect of Ukip’s rise is that everyone says they’d go for a beer with Nigel Farage. Really? He’d rant about the EU and immigrants the whole time, embarrass you by talking too loudly, say “bottoms up” whenever he started a drink, stop you getting a word in edgeways and attract a swarm of similarly opinionated know-alls. Journalists are averse to bores, if not to alcohol. After a recent press conference, none would join him in the local. Sadly, he took an early flight back to Brussels instead.

Too many Nigels

Still, I might prefer a pint with Farage to one with Nigel Lawson, the born-again Euro - sceptic. Read his Times article, explaining why he wants Britain to leave the EU, and read his Chatham House speech on Europe in 1989 (when he was still chancellor), and you will understand that he’s a Farage with longer words. Lawson once supported the move towards a single European market because he thought it possible to turn Thatcherism into a continent-wide project. Single markets entail harmonisation of regulation and business and savings taxation. That was fine by Lawson if it meant harmonised abolition, or at least minimisation (I generously assume he envisaged restrictions on child labour). He now knows that will never happen. Plans for a financial transactions tax to restrain banking excesses are the last straw.

Lawson, like many Eurosceptics, complains that the EU is undemocratic. But there is nothing democratic about his wish for a Europe where business and finance do as they wish.

Sub standard

Even further down the list of ideal companions for a pint must be the Guardian news sub-editors of the 1980s. Melanie Phillips, appointed news editor, joined them on their evening breaks, as she recalls in her memoirs, serialised in the Daily Mail where she now writes. The breaks “were spent propping up the bar in the pub, beer glass in hand, legs apart, jingling coins in their pockets”. Poor Melanie drank fruit juice and struggled to understand “cryptic half-sentences, in-jokes and cricketing metaphors”.

I’ve often wondered why she, whom I once knew as an intense feminist of conventional left-wing views, suddenly developed such hatred of the Guardian and its liberal values. Now all is understood. Even forgiven.

In the red

I shall watch the fortunes of Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor as Manchester United manager with interest. I’ve never been sure whether his record was attributable to genius or to his simply having more money to spend than anyone else. His success began with the creation of the Premier League and the lucrative deals with satellite and cable broadcasters which ensured that the rich got richer and the poor poorer.

In his first five full seasons in charge at Man United, the team finished 11th, 11th, 13th, sixth and second in the old Football League first division. The first championship came in 1992-93, the Premier League’s inaugural year. Ferguson did have considerable success with modest Scottish clubs, notably Aber - deen, before he took over at United. But I often wonder how he would have fared with a serial underachiever such as my own Leicester City.