Does honesty matter? The example of Nigel Farage

Also posted on Labour International Paris’s blog, here.

“Cheeky chappy”.

“You’d have a pint with him.”

“The others ones are such odd twats.”

Every single reasonably aware British voter has heard these phrases – or similar versions thereof – with regards to Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, that seemingly unstoppable political juggernaut currently on 20-30% in most national polls for the upcoming European election in May, closely behind Labour. This improbable party leader, this Eurosceptic husband of a German wife, this former commodities trader now seen as a “man of the people” figure by many Britons, is such a Teflon politician that he even experienced a bump in popularity when it was revealed that he may well have been conducting an affair with his longstanding spokeswoman Annabelle Fuller (an affair that was an open secret for many UKIP members).

This comes despite much talk of expenses scandals, a lack of commitment to parliamentary duties, and the regular nomination of what more than one Tory has called “swivel eyed loons” as candidates for office at a European, national and local level. One look at current and recent Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) is enough to see that apart from Mr. Farage himself, UKIP’s elected representatives in Brussels have made sexist comments and been accused of sexual assault, been convicted and jailed for expenses fraud, and in the case of Ashley Mote held onto an MEP position despite actually serving prison time while still in office.

One might think any mainstream political movement would have long disappeared if it had UKIP’s record and elected officials. Yet even in polling for the upcoming general election in 2015 – national elections being notoriously bad for third, fourth and fifth parties – UKIP is polling at 10-15%, often ahead of the Liberal Democrats, and certainly high enough that it is now systematically counted as a “big” national party and not a fringe movement. How is this possible?

Well, let’s call it the “Berlusconi factor” – or perhaps the “Rob Ford factor”, after the crack cocaine-smoking drunkard who is currently mayor of Toronto. This factor is one that I remember all too well from my teenage years (in the early 2000s) in Dublin, when the obviously corrupt and incompetent Bertie Ahern (who once, as I remember, declared that drink driving rules shouldn’t apply to him as he ‘could drive just fine after ten pints’) was Prime Minister (or Taoiseach, as the Irish would say). The general populace had little to no trust in Ahern, yet he was elected in 1997 and re-elected twice thererafter. One might also call it the “George W Bush factor”, after that famous teetotaler who was voted into office as the candidate that the electorate would like to have a beer with.

That factor decreases with time, as voters actually see what such obvious populists can and will do once they actually get into power. However, it’s a slow process – Berlusconi is only now being gradually pushed to the sidelines – and the damage in terms of the destruction of public trust in their elected officials as obviously bonkers politicians exercise public office in the meantime is potentially awful. Little to nothing suggests that UKIP’s popularity is waning even as light is shed on the inner workings of the party. When and where their progression will be stopped is not clear.

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