By Paul Goodman
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A UKIP-related story has made a splash this morning. Here's another that can easily be imagined on the front page of the Guardian or the Independent, before being highlighted the whole day long on the BBC, from Today to Newsnight. Maggie Chapman, a UKIP election agent, has tweeted what supporters might call light-hearted observations, and opponents – plus a very large number of people who are neither – would call racist jokes. "EastEnders is just so unrealistic," one of them reads. "A Paki family planning to actually go home." There are more, including one playing on the verbal similarity beween Shiite – as in Shiite Muslims – and the swear word for excrement.
My point is not that UKIP is a racist party. Indeed, the opposite is true: UKIP is not a racist party. The first two words that describe it on its own google entry are "libertarian, non-racist". Four of the five people photographed with Nigel Farage on the home page of its website are black. And if you google "BNP" on the site, up comes an article by the UKIP leader containing the words "BNP membership is not compatible with UKIP membership". He writes them in the context of dual membership of UKIP and other parties. "We've always been open to dual membership," he says, adding that he's happy if UKIP members are also Labour or Conservative ones.
Why is this? The answer is obvious, and I'm afraid that it's necessary to use some cliches to explain it. UKIP is happy to draw members from what most people would call its left – from the two biggest parties – and to make it as easy as possible for them to sign up. "Joining us is an easy thing to do," Mr Farage is saying to Tory members disgruntled with David Cameron's position on the EU or gay marriage or grammar schools: "Look, you don't even have to leave the party you've been a member of for so long – you're welcome here anyway."
So why, then, the BNP bar? Because Mr Farage and the UKIP leadership, sitting as it does to the right of the Conservatives, is nervous of political activists who sit to the right of their own party. (I apologise again for using the cliche as a form of shorthand.) As I say, UKIP isn't a racist party, but it does have, at least potentially, a racist problem – which takes us back to the Chapman tweets. This is bound to be so in a party that lives where it does on the political spectrum, and Mr Farage and co are smart to be wise to it.
Readers will wonder why I am dwelling on those tweets and not on the horrifying, Orwellian and infinitely serious story in today's Daily Telegraph. The reason is that I want to make a point more original than the ritual condemnation of the Airstrip One behaviour of Rotherham Council. It is that the prospect of a pact with UKIP, and perhaps a merger, is usually probed in a very narrow way – in other words, in terms of what it would perhaps mean for Britain's policy towards the EU, and how voters express a view on it at the ballot box.
Indeed, it is so narrow as to be blinkered – or, to use another image from the senses, emotionally tone-deaf. The Chapman tweets and the Rotherham horror should remind us that a Conservative-UKIP pact would associate the two parties with each other in the minds of voters – just as two people are associated after they co-habit. Voters would get into the habit of lumping them together. The Rotherham couple would in effect be our members. But we would also own Mrs Chapman and her tweets. Are we sure we've thought through all the consequences?