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Ukip and the 'Eat Your Greens' Problem

02/06/2014 13:50 BST | Updated 30/07/2014 10:59 BST

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If for nothing else, congratulations to Nigel Farage for ending the embarrassment of Britain returning a British National Party MEP to represent us in Brussels. The whispering campaign against Ukip in some sections of the media that they are jovial chaps on the surface but fascists underneath has always been a bit lazy. Even if Ukip attracts the bonkers-end of right wing votes, they do not actively promote the hostility and race-baiting characteristic of a party led by a man with an actual conviction for a hate crime. Besides, if this election shows anything it is that attempts to paint Ukip as racist actually helps increase their vote, as many people identify with the claim that ordinary folk are being slandered by an out of touch metropolitan elite. Claims that Ukip supporters are being used are less relevant than the fact that this is a strategy that is working, and it only further entrenches a victim complex that is demonstrably electorally successful.

Ukip has managed to associate itself with all that is oppressed and marginalised. It doesn't matter that its supporters are neither of those things; that is how it is seen. Treating Ukip as a populist insurgency that will burn itself out only allows Ukip to claim that it is being patronised. Like all populists, the underlying pathology is common or garden small-d anti-democratic - the insistence that strength is weakness, that negotiation is surrender - even if democracy is the system that produces it and that it nominally adheres to. How else to explain a party that achieves a plurality of the vote in a national election (but not, importantly, a majority) still flogging the idea that they are a persecuted minority?

Better then to embrace Ukip's democratic mandate and hold them accountable, as per their manifesto, to the nuts-and-bolts of political life - making sure that schools and hospitals are run well - rather than sneering about their democratic or mental bona fides. UKIP do not aspire to just European Parliament seats but to Westminster ones too. Now is the time to ensure that UKIP's contributions on free schools, private finance in the NHS, foreign policy or on delivering jobs and macroeconomic stability are tested in the light of day.

So the only real way to deal with Ukip is to defuse the premise that their opponents are more interested in patronising than in engaging with the issues (and no, it is not patronising to phrase it as 'deal with Ukip'; democratic politics is a contest and I want one side to win.) As a good leftie my eyes roll at the tactic of pivoting every issue back to immigration or the EU, but as someone who wants Ukip to be electorally defeated I think the broad left needs a better defence than assuming that Nigel Farage, Paul Nuttall or Diane James are the sort of people who will just pipe down when told to by what has become, in a perversely inverted sense, The Man.

The idea that Ukip voters are lemmings experiencing false consciousness will not only be spun as offensive, it is offensive. Such explanations about why people vote Ukip are lazy, and the party's supporters seem to suspect that this is what those they are voting against think about them. Nothing helps Ukip's us-and-them narrative more than reinforcing the notion that there is a difference between us and (guess who) them. There is a reason Woodie Guthrie never wrote protest songs about introducing a flat tax. Why are we turning these people into folk heroes?

Progressive parties such as the Greens, who also increased their vote, are missing from the narrative that the Euro elections were a triumph for Ukip. (I have written before that Labour have given up on progressivism until they explicitly reject Faragism and pay more than lip-service to the merits of Europe and immigration.) Greens suffer, politically, from what might be called an Eat Your Greens problem. Simply put, this is the dilemma faced when long-term environmental concerns bump up against short-term political concerns. Eating your greens is verifiably good for you; and whilst swapping a portion of broccoli for a doughnut one time won't make much of a difference, it makes it just that little bit harder to resist temptation next time around.

Politicians, especially at election time, are selling doughnuts. A soft, sweet centre of cheap public services and low taxes, injected right into the heart of a fried, sugary dough of scapegoats and fear. Some politicians will even tell you that doughnuts will cost you less to buy than you know they cost to make. Some still will tell you that we can have free doughnuts forever, if only those foreigners would stop tempting us with their evil strudels and chapatis (OK,I am torturing this metaphor a bit now.)

Given this temptation at election time, it is unsurprising that politely urging people to eat more broccoli fails to make an impact. Because politics is an art and not a science appeals to emotion have greater impact than appeals to fact - especially when it concerns an inherently unknown and fearful future.

Although it may not seem like it just yet, Ukip and the Greens are two sides of the same coin. They are more than just pressure groups formed to bring the three main parties to their senses. Both are premised on the assumption that the modern world is seriously off-track, and the main parties are not just tactically unwilling to deal with this but structurally incapable. Ukip and the Greens have both identified that there is too much competition for too few resources given current economic structures, they just disagree about what to do about it. One approach says we have to challenge the shibboleth of unending, always-benevolent growth (the idea that money can buy our way out of problems), the other that too many people are the problem.

There is a veneer of intellectual coherence, even a worldview (if not an ideology) in Ukip's approach. They successfully exploit two issues that both Labour and Tory governments kept promising they would be tough on but never were. Conservative promises founder on the tension between their nationalist impulses and their business constituents. Labour promises founder on the tension between their internationalist impulses and their working class constituents. Both parties were engaged in a 40-year conspiracy to sound tough on Europe while taking the path of least political resistance. Ukip called their bluff.

Just imagine what the country would now be like if the Greens had been able to make climate change, or peak oil, or biodiversity, the wedge issues that Ukip has made of immigration and Europe. If we had put our energies into problem-solving rather than blame-shifting. There is an 'eat-your-greens' problem in framing and communicating environmental issues; and environmentalists if not careful come across as nags. But Ukip's message is hardly filled with hope and joy. There are lessons to be learnt from Ukip's rise, and a lot of middle ground between well-meaning electoral oblivion and what gets unfairly labelled 'eco-fascism.' Identifying those issues the political class are not talking about (there I go falling into the Uki[ trap already) such as climate change, and the cost of living being a result of dysfunctional capitalism, must be the first task.