Some of the coverage of the background and views of UKIP local election candidates has been met with a glee born of a belief that it might be the silver bullet to puncture the party’s recent rise in support. I have an intrinsic suspicion that this will prove not to be so.
Last night I was away from news and twitter. Before reading the papers in any detail I sent a tweet saying: ‘Attacking UKIP over policy or people won’t work. Genuinely responding to legitimate concerns of people tempted by them may well do.’ I later read Lord Ashcroft’s perceptive observations that sum up my own views precisely.
To try to tackle UKIP as though they were a conventional aspirant party of Government is, in my own view, to misunderstand what they are about and the motivation of those currently minded to support them.
The only point Michael Ashcroft makes that I take issue with is that UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage is the heir to Nick Clegg. I think perhaps he is more akin to the heir to Charlie Kennedy. I well remember over seven winters as the Conservative candidate in Eastleigh trying to demolish the absurd Lib Dem assertion that the infamous ‘Penny on Income Tax’ that was promised would lead to a world beating education system, a perfect NHS and milk and honey following down every High Street in the land. The public were not interested for, at that time, they felt of the LibDems as they now view UKIP – they were not going to be the Government. They were judged at a lower standard.
UKIP’s rise is not based on their policy platform (which is intellectually lacking robustness, lazy and in many ways contradictory). Nor is it based on their personnel (other than the cheeky chappy Nigel Farage) who I’m certain falls short of a standard that would be expected by the three main parties. It is based on a frustration of the main parties to tackle some issues in a way a number of the public want them tackled.
Some very bright and good people I know have started supporting UKIP in recent years. I do not regard UKIP supporters as ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ although I’m sure they have some unsavoury members. So has my own party over the years. I view them as people frustrated with welfare, immigration and Europe. The answer to UKIP’s rise is not to attack them but to address head on their legitimate concerns which are widely shared. Iain Duncan Smith is doing just that on welfare and the Prime Minister’s promise of a referendum is another answer to the UKIP dilemma.
If attacking UKIP on detail and people was the answer Nigel Farage would have imploded last week. He didn’t. He was the guest speaker at the Parliamentary Press Gallery lunch in Parliament. I was there as a guest of a lobby reporter. Farage made an amusing speech in which he gently mocked his own work ethic, his drinking habits, and an extramarital affair. The press laughed indulgently. Before speaking he drank a bottle of red wine over lunch. Imagine had that been the leader of the Labour, Conservative or Lib Dems? They would have been destroyed in the press. Farage was not. Therein lies the futility of attacking them. They are held to a different standard. Much better to address the concerns of their supporters head on. There lies the route to the reunification of the Conservative family.
Conor Burns is Conservative MP for Bournemouth West.