Mark Fox writes is Chief Executive of the Business Services Association and a former Parliamentary Candidate. He writes here in a personal capacity.
So we finally have the result: UKIP has won the Rochester and Strood by-election. The party now has two members of the House of Commons. Extraordinary. A real achievement. Well done them. They are on a roll. An unstoppable force in politics. Real slap in the face for the status quo, “Westminster”, Whitehall, David Cameron, Ed Balls, political correctness, Sir Jeremy Heywood, “toffs”, “plebs”, doner kebabs, anyone or anything else we don’t like, don’t want, want to send home, move out of our village – or who takes the job we wouldn’t dream of doing.
The two main parties are now well and truly on the ropes. Now we are confronted with a huge crisis for Cameron, Balls, Nick Clegg, “Westminster”, “Whitehall”, “Europe’, Parliament, democracy. We must immediately change the voting system, rejuvenate/abolish political parties, have instant recall of MPs when they do something we don’t like, sack Sir Jeremy – because he is, you understand, responsible for most of what is wrong with modern Britain – impeach Tony Blair, exhume Mrs T and make her leader/put her on trial, have more mayors, but fewer politicians, and so it goes on.
Well, hang on a minute.
That the government (Conservative and Liberal Democrat both) failed to win a by-election at the fag-end of an overlong Parliament is not news, surely. That the main opposition failed to win it in a marginal seat they recently held this close to a general election is, or ought to be, news.
Today, Rochester and Strood is represented by the same MP as it was before the by-election was called. He has the same views, expresses them in the same way, and will presumably represent his constituents in the same manner. That is also true for Clacton. So what exactly has changed? Certainly very little for the two constituencies directly concerned.
In recent times UKIP, like the SNP in Scotland, has evolved an effective media and campaigning machine. Since Patrick O’Flynn, the former Daily Express journalist, joined their ranks they have been adept at stealing headlines and lampooning their rivals. Sticking to headline issues, avoiding detail, and making sure there are plenty of photo-ops with Nigel, a pint and a gasper. Their issues are simple: everything you don’t like about what’s happening around you. UKIP, like the SNP, have become expert Eeyores. They should proudly adopt the donkey as their symbol.
This approach of identifying who is to blame, who is weak and who is letting you down is very seductive. It works. People of all kinds respond to it. It plays to everyone’s inner desire to blame someone else for their problems, lack of promotion, failure to secure what they want.
Before there was UKIP, there were a bewildering array of protest vote opportunities. Now we have one. The choice is easy: none of the above – vote UKIP. Lovely. Job done.
In Scotland, where UKIP barely registers, the SNP fulfils a similar role. They practice exactly the same kind of politics. For UKIP, “Europe” is the target. For the SNP, it is “Westminster”. The mantra is exactly the same. “We don’t like you. You are not one of us. You are to blame for everything we don’t like. Go away.”
We see the emergence of such politics once again in Germany. In Greece, Spain and Italy, it is well represented. In France, the long march of Marie Le Pen’s party has brought it to the very heart of Presidential politics. How long will it be before Germany and the European Commission understand that it is France and its Presidential politics that threatens the future of the European Union – not David Cameron’s modest and sensible demands for reform?
In Britain, what UKIP and the SNP represent is a brand of well-funded, professionally organised protest led by two wily professional politicians who tap into feelings that the two main parties seem unwilling or unable to reach.
The conclusion reached by UKIP/SNP success is that the two main parties have had it. Certainly, people are disillusioned. It isn’t possible to go canvassing, and I do often, without meeting people of all party affiliation and none who want an opportunity to say how fed up they are. Never do they mention the voting system, nor do they say how enthused they would be if only they could recall their MP. Time and again, people talk about schools, roads, jobs, training – the real things of their everyday lives.
This is what both UKIP and the SNP have been so skilful at doing: linking domestic discontent to Brussels, for UKIP, and London, for the SNP.
This is what Cameron and Ed Milliband need to tackle – this sublime, seductive dishonesty. Neither can or should be happy that their parties are polling in the thirties. Neither should think it good enough. Neither should be persuaded it is what they have to settle for.
There is a clear choice at the next election between two quite different visions of where Britain should head, and it is down to these two leaders to push out into the country and offer their manifestos with conviction and enthusiasm.
The analysis that says the main parties are permanently diminished is lazy nonsense. Facing this new form of well-organised institutional professionalised form of protest politics requires – demands – not structural tinkering but needs to be met with a new politics of aspiration, optimism, hope and (dare I say it, yes I do) – vision.
Saying such things is currently regarded by many at the top of each main party as slightly distasteful, rather unsophisticated, showing a clear sign of not “getting it”, and bordering on the parochially naive.
This, though, is essentially the formula every successful democratic leader and party has followed.
The SW1 salon argument is that the great issues are settled. There are no more big battles left to fight – except pulling the UK out of the European Union and that this matters above all else, whatever the cost. Politics is now about who manages most effectively and who can count the beans best. What we need, they say, is to be as shiny as Tony Blair – who is quietly called ‘the Master’ by his admirers – and all will be well. That shallow analysis underpins how the Conservative and Labour Parties behave.
But UKIP and the SNP show there is more to British politics than this. They are the symptom – but can never be the cure. They are the Victor Meldrews of British politics. They can’t be defeated by organisation or ridicule. It is their ideas, their view of the nation and the world that have to be challenged and defeated. Their arguments, pessimism, cynicism, and degradation of our national values has to be rejected in debate and through the ballot box.
This will require the fashioning of a new confident political settlement by both the Conservative and Labour Parties, not just to save themselves but to save the country itself.