The local election results signal the start of the European elections campaign. For any progressive-minded person who wants to see the UK remain in the European Union, the goal must be for those parties that unequivocally back a people’s vote and support Remain to get the highest possible aggregate vote share.
For all the worry about splitting the Remain vote, aggregate vote share is what matters. Of course there are several Leave vote options too, namely the Brexit Party, Ukip, the Conservative Party and, some might say, the Labour Party – there is no cohesion on the other side of the fence.
However, what has really spooked so many Remainers is all the hype in the media around Nigel Farage who poses as a man of the people and yet is anything but. Instead of challenging the hype or looking at the motivations of those pumping him up, too many people are swallowing this hype. A reset is needed and there are a few things to bear in mind with regard to what is actually going on.
Farage is a formidable, professional politician of three decades standing. So in no way am I suggesting he should be dismissed or that anyone should underestimate the threat he poses to progressive British values in these elections.
He is, after all, one of the architects of the Brexit mess in which the country is mired and managed to curate this disaster from outside of the House of Commons. So why is the media narrative around him “hype”?
In the last European elections, held in 2014, Farage and his then Ukip party got 26.6 per cent of the vote. They then received 12.6 per cent of the vote in the 2015 general election, though the Tories admittedly stood on an anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic manifesto too, getting 36.9 per cent of the vote – so call it 49.5 per cent for the Farage agenda.
In 2016, Leave – of which Farage is the symbolic head – received 52 per cent of the vote. In 2017, Theresa May adopted much of Farage’s agenda on Brexit and received 42.4 per cent of the vote, losing her majority. Farage’s Brexit Party is currently polling back around the result he achieved in 2014.
Looked at in this context, we are not seeing a resurgence for Farage’s hard Brexit, but the media headlines would have you believe the opposite.
I asked a long-standing member of the Westminster lobby (the political journalists of the main national newspapers and current affairs magazines), who is the political editor of a well-known newspaper, whether it was fair to describe the media noise around Farage as “hype”.
He thought it fair and explained it like this: most of the national newspapers heavily backed Brexit (the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, The Sun, the Daily Express, the Sunday Times etc) but do not want to back the Tories in these European elections because they have made such a mess of it and Theresa May has no credibility.
They have therefore selected Farage as their man in these elections. And yet, too many Remainers read the commentary dressed up as reportage on Farage in pro-Brexit media, buy it and panic. These media outlets are hardly going to be trumpeting the success of the anti-Brexit movement – they are going to dump on the anti-Brexit, people’s vote movement every day between now and 23 May.
Farage is not interested in anything other than using Brexit to promote his nasty brand of hard right, xenophobic nationalism, which is why his party is called the Brexit Party. Cue the calls for Change UK and others to call ourselves “The Remain Party”. No. Because we stand for more than being anti-Brexit.
We are not cynical short-term opportunists and, unlike Farage, we actually want to change our country. Farage seeks to avoid all responsibility and accountability, in spite of the fact he bears a huge part of the blame for the mess we are in. If we simply imitate his short-term opportunism then we might as well pack up and go home.
Finally, I thought long and hard about whether to write this column on Farage at all because some might say it serves to give further oxygen to the man. The target must be less the man and more what he stands for. We should be unapologetic in exposing his agenda relentlessly.
He has changed the name and colour of his party but it’s the same old, nasty politics. As he said last month – there is “no difference between the Brexit party and Ukip in terms of policy”.
And the culture is the same too. The founder of his new party, Ukip’s former economics spokesperson, recently resigned after Hope Not Hate uncovered Islamophobic material she had posted on social media and her extensive retweeting of racist far-right figures.
This is not surprising. At the heart of Ukip and the Brexit Party’s argument is that the EU and, in particular, immigrants are the cause of all of Britain’s problems.
Farage is a peddler of hate like the founder of his new party. In May 2014, in an interview with James O’Brien on LBC Radio, Farage was asked what the difference was between having a group of Romanian men and German children (he has part German children) as neighbours. “You know what the difference is,” Farage replied.
He added: “I was asked, if a group of Romanian men moved in next to you, would you be concerned? And if you lived in London, I think you would be.” He had argued that Romanian immigrants had triggered a crime wave in London.
Later that year, in December, he blamed immigrants for a traffic jam on the M4 that led to him turning up late to an event. He sought to whip up hatred again in 2015 during the general election that year with his claim, in one of the leaders’ TV debates, that foreign patients with HIV were costing the NHS huge sums.
This is not a mainstream politician or political agenda. It’s extreme stuff and people should be reminded that this is what lies behind the Brexit Party razzmatazz he is offering up. Far better to put energy into challenging and exposing the ugly politics of Farage than to feed the hype around it. Better still, to put forward a hopeful, optimistic vision of a country open to new ideas and people – that’s what we’ll be doing between now and polling day.