Morbid Fascination

Nigel Farage in a debate on Greece in the European Parliament, in July 2015.

I remember when I was on Any Questions. Of course, I was just another civilian in the audience, not actually on the panel – which included Sadiq Khan and UKIP’s Patrick O’Flynn. My own contribution to the programme was shouting “Liar!” at Chris Grayling as he held forth on privatisation. This was 2013.

Before the show was recorded, the programme’s editor (whose name escapes me) appeared on stage and took questions from the Kensington audience. The first: “Will the BBC ever have a presenter who isn’t left-wing?” This question drew plenty of laughter. “Bollocks,” I said not too quietly.

Another audience member asked what the BBC will do in the future. The editor responded that the corporation will allow the question of immigration to discussed openly. I imagined this meant more airtime for the anti-immigrant crowd, especially right-wing populists like UKIP leader Nigel Farage. I wasn’t wrong.

Open Season

Farage has long been the favourite guest on Question Time. He’s been invited on more than any other politician. By 2014, the British media would be hyping up UKIP’s growth and its threat to Labour seats – both turned out to be exaggerated. It became commonplace to hear UKIP described as “the fourth party” on the BBC and elsewhere. But the party failed to break through the electoral system in 2015 – coming out with just one MP (a Tory defector).

Traditionally, the BBC would manage the centre by bringing on politicians from the big three: the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems. As a result, programmes like Any Questions, Question Time and Newsnight served as opportunities for the political class to assert itself. The range of political opinion was confined to three parties, while some space was set aside for a marginal party, a joke commentator, or even a writer.

Anything beyond the horizon of this narrow terrain cannot be heard, or even acknowledged. This keeps discussion within the realm of certain assumptions. Exceptions were rarely made for appearances by left-wing radicals and right-wing mavericks. But these outside views are brought on just to reinforce the main agenda. Objectivity is defined by what it excludes, not by what it includes.

The left voice is usually absent, while Farage became a regular on the BBC and other channels. He became the go-to-populist for the mainstream media. It’s difficult to say whether the media believed he was important, or that he fit the bill quite well. Of course, it turned out Farage was quick on his foot and able to handle liberal journalists. He even debated Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg with the BBC’s David Dimbleby as mediator.

Clegg agreed to debate Farage out of his liberal faith in open discussion. He honestly believed he would defeat the UKIP leader by bringing out ‘the truth’ about the EU and immigration. Clegg would convince the people because reason was on his side, or so he thought. It quickly became a farce. Running rings around Clegg, Farage easily came out much better. He easily dodged the softballs thrown his way by Dimbleby.

Looking back in years to come, Nigel Farage may turn out to be the most effective conservative of his generation. He’s managed to influence, if not reshape, the national debate in Britain without ever holding a position of real power. The EU referendum may not have been held had David Cameron not felt compelled to fend-off the threat of UKIP. But this wasn’t just down to Farage’s tenacity alone.

Over the years, the BBC and the whole British media opened up to the UKIP brand. Fascinated with the far-right, the liberal mainstream has long been captivated by its leaders and the possibility its message resonates with working people. This may be why the BBC just reported Farage being shortlisted for the cover of Time Magazine. The press is following Farage closely as he flirts with the incoming Trump administration.

Taking the North

Since Farage handed over the UKIP leadership to Paul Nuttall (after months of protracted difficulties), the British press has kept to the line that Nuttall is a threat to Labour’s Northern heartlands. Once victorious, Nuttall made it clear he wanted to snatch Northern constituencies from the Labour Party, and the BBC reported on this with little criticism. It’s as if all you need to get Northern votes is a Liverpudlian accent.

Instead, the commentators flocked to hear Labour MPs Dan Jarvis and Frank Field claim UKIP is a major threat to their party. It’s in vogue within some Labour circles to talk down free movement and talk up immigration controls. Jarvis himself claims there should be an immigration cap and Field has long argued for ‘toughness’ on immigration. This is meant to be catnip for working-class voters.

Typically, the BBC then follows up such coverage with a series of vox pops of ‘ordinary people’ saying UKIP stands up for the ‘white’ working-class more than Labour does. Of course, it is true that UKIP came second to Labour in 44 constituencies in 2015. However, the reality is that UKIP is moving in and absorbing the right-wing opposition vote in Labour strongholds. This is a testament to just how poisonous the Tory brand has become.

Even still, the liberal commentariat was convinced that Labour would lose Oldham West to UKIP in 2015. You could read Rafael Behr in The Guardian damning Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing leadership as ‘poncified’. He employed the same vox pop tactic as the BBC and enjoyed hearing Warren, a UKIP voter, call Corbyn a “pussy”. Token Northerner John Harris presented a series of videos claiming Corbynmania was about to “collide with reality”. And yet Labour candidate, Jim McMahon, thrashed UKIP by 11,000 votes.

UKIP is still primarily a threat to the Conservative vote, soaking up 44% of past Conservative voters in Labour areas. At the same time, UKIP claims 20% of former Labour voters in such constituencies, but these are mostly people who voted for the Tories in 2010. So UKIP is doing well in Labour strongholds, but the party is unlikely to take these seats in 2020. What happens with Brexit will determine UKIP’s future.

It’s plausible, the party has lost its raison d’etre. Farage may need a new vehicle to pursue his aims. If this is the case, all the swagger of Paul Nuttall can’t resist the inevitable. His strange views on abortion, homosexuality and the NHS are enough to scare away Labour voters. Ranting about ‘cultural Marxism’ will not get him much headway in today’s environment. Nevertheless, Nuttall can count on the BBC to give him the coverage he so desires.

Photograph courtesy of European Parliament. Published under a Creative Commons license.