When it comes to democracy, you have to take the rough with the smooth. Those saddened at seeing the manifestation of the latent support for UKIP in the last couple of years, will know this all too well. However, UKIP are not the problem, UKIP are merely the symptom of the problem. Namely, that democracy equalises the legitimate concerns of informed voters, with the imagined fears of the uninformed and hysterical. In every other field, be it the sciences, the arts or sports, the views of those deemed experts, based often on empirical and testable bases are privileged, despite noisy but substance-free opposition. That is why despite the claims of the anti-vaccine lobby, that vaccines cause autism, most still choose to have their children vaccinated, because those who understand medicine know, and say, that the anti-vaccine lobby’s claims are unfounded. In the political realm, UKIP are the anti-vaccine lobby: uninformed, marginalised and despised by many. Yet when it comes to the ballot box, their unfounded fears of Islamisation, immigration and LGBTQ rights count as much as the beliefs of the most astute political scientist.
The Spectator – rather unsurprisingly – has published a collection of articles praising UKIP on its website over the last year or so. The most deluded of which is surely Peter Oborne’s piece stating that UKIP and Nigel Farage’s political success is benefiting British democracy. Oborne is right that UKIP have been a vehicle for raising the concerns, of an otherwise ignored group, to the political fore. Where he is wrong, is in stating this is a good thing. UKIP’s rise has indeed made the country more democratic. Mainstream politicians are now forced to address the concerns of UKIP supporters. However these are not legitimate concerns, they are mostly imagined concerns, fuelled by a nefarious press which has left many with a warped understanding of modern Britain. Most perniciously, it is detracting from the real debates needed within politics that could present tangible harms. Whilst politicians must now pander to voters over immigration and Islam, the very real threat of climate change goes ignored; a banking regulatory system eerily like the one in 2007 remains unchanged; a bloated welfare system continues to reward well off elderly citizens and rentiers, whilst punishing those now reliant on food banks.
The evidence for the bubble inhabited by many who support UKIP, comes in the form of an Ipsos-Mori study from late 2013. The study was damning of the British public’s understanding of the country that they inhabit. That “The public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%” is alarming enough. However, when you factor in that the British public also believe 24% of Britain to be Muslim, when the actual figure is 5%, and that black and Asian people make up 30% of the population when the figure is only 11%, an incredibly worrying trend begins to emerge. What this data demonstrates is that the British public believe their country to be far more Muslim, far more foreign, and have more ethnic minority members than is the case. What is striking with regards to UKIP’s recent success, is that the irrational fears prompted by these beliefs, correlate almost exactly with the narrative that UKIP presents to its supporters.
UKIP’s main appeal to voters, is not its opposition to Britain’s membership of the EU, but its stance on immigration – with 83% of UKIP supporters believing it to be one of the three most important policy areas compared to 36% believing Europe to be equally as important. When speaking to Newsnight in May Nigel Farage repeated the party’s often heard refrain about the ‘pace of change’ in modern British demographics to be too high:
“All over this country I talk to people who say ‘I hate to say this, I’ve never felt like this,
but I am beginning to feel a degree of enmity towards communities I am living with such
is the pace of change”’
However, this really isn’t a reasonable depiction of UKIP voters, very few of whom actually come from areas with high numbers of immigrants, or large immigrant communities. A YouGov piece from back in February highlighted the parliamentary seats that would have been won by UKIP if the local elections of 2013 were parliamentary elections instead. They find the seats that would have been won were: Aylesbury, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, Boston & Skegness, Camborne & Redruth, Forest of Dean, Great Yarmouth, North Thanet, South Thanet, Worthing East and Shoreham. None of the areas in which the concentration of UKIPs’ support was highest, are the sort of multicultural, cosmopolitan areas that Nigel Farage claims his supporters are worried about the ‘pace of change’ in. If that were the case, we’d expect to see a strong UKIP following in large urban areas where there are significant numbers of ethnic minority citizens and immigrants. However, support for UKIP in places such as London, Manchester and Birmingham is among the lowest across the UK.
The correlation between the campaign messaging of UKIP and the misconceptions of the British public is too strong to overlook. UKIP are not the shot-in-the-arm that British democracy needs – as they are often heralded – rather they are the beneficiaries of a public that is worryingly ignorant of the makeup of its own country. The fact that support for UKIP is strongest in areas without significant numbers of immigrants or ethnic minorities, is more evidence that it is irrational beliefs, and not personal experience, that drives those fearful of immigration and demographic change to vote for UKIP. Contrary to UKIP’s perpetual refrain, British politicians are not out of touch with the British public; too much of the British public are out of touch with reality.