The sustained rise of Ukip over recent years has stunned psephologists, commentators, politicians and even, the ever so wise, public affairs profession. Much has been written recently arguing that if the Conservatives can just successfully communicate the simple message “vote Ukip, get Miliband” in the run up to 2015 they will get much of their traditional core support back. There have even been those bold enough to suggest if Conservative leader David Cameron can “unite the right” the Conservatives will be looking at winning north of 40% of the national vote in 2015. Ultimately, though, people have fundamentally misunderstood one of the major reasons behinds Ukip’s appeal – namely entertainment.
Author Michael Crichton once wrote “In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom.” Ukip are by far and away the most entertaining party, and this factor seems to have been largely overlooked in explaining their success. No one could ever accuse Ukip of being boring. Shocking – yes, offensive – yes, bizarre – yes, but never boring. In Nigel Farage, Ukip has a leader who manages to come across as both authentic, entertaining and someone who really believes in the policies he articulates. By political standards he is a straight talker, giving straightforward answers anyone can understand, something that really appeals to voters. The Ukip leader doesn’t shy away from those issues that the main parties tie themselves in knots over, namely Europe, Immigration and Tax.
As Ukip grows in size and support it’s beginning to encounter an increasing number of teething pains. The question is does it matter and will it affect them? Even by Ukip’s standards, the antics of Godfrey Bloom MEP at the Ukip conference in London (a double whammy of sexist language and hitting a journalist with the Ukip manifesto – video here) were astonishing, and given the fact he lost the party whip it seems even Farage was worried he’d gone a step too far. However the incident has barely registered, with Ukip’s daily poll rating fluctuating between 10 – 13% in the twelve days since the incident. It reminds me of the now legendary incident during 2001 election campaign, when the then cabinet minister John Prescott, after having an egg thrown over him, punched the culprit on live television. Tony Blair recounts in his autobiography his sense of astonishment and panic when hearing the news, but the reality was that it had next to no impact on people’s voting intentions. In fact it was one of the most popular moments of the election campaign as voters considered the incident a real, unstaged event in contrast to the carefully choreographed speeches to supporters that dominate the rest of the campaign.
Ukip’s entertainment value alone will decide the Conservatives’ fate at the next election, rather that the Conservatives must fully understand the Ukip phenomenon in order to come up with the solutions to win the next election. There is clearly something more to explaining the Ukip phenomenon than just the dry dynamics of an electoral market where the most disenchanted Conservatives feel Ukip’s policies suit them better.
The PM has twice made the wrong diagnosis before, firstly believing Ukip would never really attract enough votes to make a major impact since they were really a party of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.” Again many thought Cameron had lanced the Ukip boil when he announced the promise of a referendum on EU membership in 2017, if the Conservatives were to win a majority government.
For me, Cameron must appreciate that just taking a more explicitly right wing stance on some of Ukip’s strong points isn’t the answer. Shifting to the right carries a real risk of alienating as many of the crucial centrist swing voters as it will reclaim from Ukip, and for the reasons outlined above policy is not the only reason for Ukip’s success. Similarly the suggestion of a series of local electoral pacts – favoured by those troublesome traditionalist backbenchers like Peter Bone – runs into exactly the same problem.
I would advise Cameron deploys Boris as his main weapon against Ukip and Farage. Firstly, it’s forever being reported that Boris is more popular than Cameron, and he appeals more to the base and the right leaning voters. More important than this though, he’s one of the few politicians who really can take on Farage at his own game – a master of the humorous headline grabbing quip, certainly as much of an entertainer, perceived as authentic, and a genuine big hitter with a major profile. It also has the added advantage of giving Boris an important role in the run up to 2015, keeping him busy and hopefully dampening constant speculation about his leadership ambitions.
Secondly Cameron should play to his strengths, he’s widely seen as the most competent, most statesmanlike, most accomplished of the party leaders. Taking the line of “a serious man, for serious times” plays right into these qualities. It turns one of Ukip’s (and indeed Boris’s) strengths, namely their entertainment value, into one of their weaknesses. A positive appeal to voters based on competency and authority has much stronger appeal than the negative, calculated approach of “Vote Ukip, get Miliband”.
Whatever solution Cameron chooses, it is crucial he gets it right this time.