How do you deal with populist jokers like Beppe Grillo and Nigel Farage?
The brilliant result in Eastleigh last night (a little bias showing here) was excellent news for the Lib Dems but a nightmare result for the Conservatives, beaten into third place by UKIP.
Like all ultra-conservative political campaigns, of the small nation, small ambition, small minds variety, UKIP is primarily a problem for the official Conservative Party. But in the end they are everyone’s problem, because of their disastrous destabilising effect on mainstream politicians.
So I am not just being generous here when I offer this advice to the Conservatives. Here is the Boyle Patent Three-Stage Advice for Dealing with Populist Jokers:
1. Downplay Europe as an issue. Or – to put it another way – for goodness sake don’t encourage them. The first thing the Conservatives will do is to swing to the right, start arguing endlessly about Europe or coming up with symbolic means to épater les Européens – and the result will be that Britain’s relations with Europe will rise up the political agenda, fuelling the UKIP machine. Farage will be given what they used to call ‘the oxygen of publicity’. The effect that Jean Marie le Pen had in France was that the official parties began to talk about race as a way of clawing his votes back. The actual effect of this was to put petrol in his bandwagon.
2. Stop talking endlessly about vision (unless you have one). The truth is that the British political system corrodes vision. Consequently most UK politicians would not recognise one if it was gift-wrapped with ribbons and handed to them with a label marked ‘vision’. The mouthing of platitudes about vision simply widens the gap with the public.
3. Don’t be scared of responsible populism. Le Pen used to say he was winning because he was leading the only non-technocratic political party in Europe. What I believe he meant was that there is a quite terrifying blindness that mainstream politicians have to the miserable failings of vast institutions and bureaucracies – including of course the European Union. If UKIP is the only party that is able to point out these failings, and point out the way we are trussed up and abused by bureaucracies – public and private – and constantly taken for a ride by the overpaid scoundrels who run them, then it is hardly surprising they do well. Populism isn’t just about hate, unless you let the big haters get a clear run at the truth.
The political establishment has a horror of populism, which they regard as invariably racist and proto-fascist. It is one of the legacies of the Second World War, and the besetting sin of Fabianism – the worship of big bureaucracies for the good of the many.
The political projects known as Red Tories (aka ResPublica) and Blue Labour were both remarkably similar approaches to populism, recognising the vital importance of people to making anything work – versus big organisations, big corporations, big bureaucracies and technocracy in its many corrosive forms.
And let’s face it, the Lib Dems are not immune to the Fabian Fallacy themselves. They are prepared to turn a blind eye to the damage done by economic forces, or by huge bureaucracies – as long as their objectives are correct. As long as they tackle the euro crisis. As long as they pay down Greek debt. As if it doesn’t matter too much if a thousand people die unnecessarily on the wards as long as the integrity of the NHS is preserved.
If we really want to tackle UKIP, our very own Tea Party, then we need to borrow a little populism ourselves. What we need is a parallel Lib Dem movement, let’s call it Purple Liberals – or better still, let’s call it community politics – where we can genuinely start from where people are.
Not The People, a tyrannical concept if ever there was one. But people. Don’t let’s leave it to Farage or Grillo to occasionally tell it fearlessly how it is.