Mainstream politicians, never known for giving a straight answer, have been giving particularly wibbly and unclear responses to one particular question today. Is Nigel Farage a racist and was what he said about Romanians moving in next door racist?
Ed Miliband did pick a particularly tortured definition of what Nigel Farage had said when asked about it on the Today programme. It was a ‘racial slur’ but Farage is not a racist, or at least, Miliband didn’t want to make politics more ‘disagreeable’ by accusing Farage of being a racist. But he did say that Farage was right to apologise. Helpfully, Nick Griffin pitched in to tell BBC News that Farage wasn’t racist, presumably on the basis that it takes one to know one.
David Cameron decided that he would leave others to judge whether Farage was a racist, which is a very unusual example of a politician not intervening in a debate to give their own judgement. He told BBC News:
‘I think he has said in recent days some really pretty unpleasant things and he even himself has had to admit that he got it wrong. So I’ll leave others to judge, but what I’ve heard from some of the candidates, some of the donors to the party is a succession of pretty appalling things.’
Why are the party leaders dancing so carefully around what they think of Nigel Farage? The first reason is that Ukip is not a racist party and so to brand it as such would be a lie. Perhaps there is also confusion over whether stereotyping of Romanians is xenophobic rather than racist.
But the second is that to brand Ukip and Nigel Farage racist would also damage the three parties, who are all bleeding voters to Ukip. David Cameron may have upped his aggression on Ukip in the past couple of weeks, but he is still keeping his language in check, and tries to gloss over the ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ line of yesteryear. Miliband meanwhile needs to avoid straying into Gillian Duffy-style behaviour and conflating concern about immigration with racism.
Both men know that these sorts of approaches feed the Ukip persecution complex no end, which in turn helps the party to recruit supporters. The sense that you are being persecuted by mainstream politicians and the press makes you pull together as a band of voters, not separate. Hence the careful words of the normally plain-speaking Eric Pickles at the weekend, and of Ed Miliband and then David Cameron today.
But then other MPs lower down the ranks think it’s worth accusing Farage of making racist comments. David Lammy told the Daily Politics that ‘what Nigel Farage said over the weekend was racist. So I’m clear: he’s a racist’. The Labour MP did try to avoid contrasting what he had said with Miliband’s earlier comments, saying ‘I think it’s not helpful to get into a pedantic discussion over the difference between a racial slur and racism. He is the leader of a national party. He should not be slurring whole communities of Romanians and describing them as bandits and criminals’.
Yvette Cooper also told ITV News that ‘it’s not racist to be worried about immigration or to want stronger controls, but it is racist to somehow stir up fears about Romanians living next door. So Ukip should say they were wrong on that’.
For once, then, it’s the Conservatives who have a united voice on Ukip, even if they are disguising what they really think behind careful words. Labour may want to develop a party line too on the is-he-or-isn’t-he-racist question before the entire PLP finds itself being surveyed as to whether it agrees with Miliband or with Cooper and Lammy.