Next week’s election should show that the main parties are failing to engage with the electorate, writes UKIP Leader Nigel Farage MEP.
•The great cliché — that all politics is local — will be played out next Thursday when all the shire counties of England, Anglesey and a tranche of urban boroughs go to the polls.
UKIP has already shown in European elections that it is a force to be reckoned with: it has now turned its sights on giving people a proper alternative at a local level. The only way to get the entrenched political class to listen to the legitimate concerns of a disenfranchised electorate is to do the one thing career politicians cannot deal with: take away their votes, their jobs and their expenses.
Proof of how this works is the immigration debate. For many years the opinion polls have shown that immigration is one of the top three public concerns. It has put pressure on local services and housing, driven down wages and contributed to unemployment, particularly among the under-25s. It’s been debated in the pubs and behind closed doors with increasing frustration while the political elite has refused to listen, let alone engage.
All it took was UKIP charging up the polls and nearly causing an almighty upset in the Eastleigh by-election. Within a fortnight the Conservatives had launched not one but four separate initiatives to attempt to address the issue. David Miliband and Nick Clegg joined in the chorus. It was an entertaining reversal of the old “I agree with Nick” chorus of the 2010 election debates — though this time, rather strangely for me, it was “I agree with Nigel”. Of course each and every one of them has denied strenuously that their sudden policy shift has anything to do with UKIP’s recent polling and by-election successes.
And so it is with the local elections. As UKIP membership increases (up by more than 40 per cent in the past year, with more than 2,000 new members this month, a record) and as our quality improves, so does our capacity to effect change. This year we are standing in 1,732 divisions across the country, a threefold increase on 2009, when these seats were last fought.
We have more candidates in the county council elections than the Lib-Dems, a party whose very heartbeat is local government. We have done this on a shoestring, with a party apparatus that includes fewer than 20 full-time staff.
We have been able to do this because we are invigorating a whole new group of volunteers, driven by a desire to serve their communities. Not just those who have joined us, disillusioned and fed up with their old parties but also those who had given up upon the whole shooting match and see in UKIP a vehicle to improve society.
Of course, this grassroots movement has given the establishment a fit of the heebie-jeebies. Commentators and party apparatchiks, flagwavers in broadcast and print worry aloud that the old parties seem unable to reason with ’Kippers.
But what have they to sell? Tired old policies. Party machines that have taken for granted their lifetime tenures on town and county halls. People so removed from the society they are supposed to serve that they have forgotten what it was they were in politics to do in the first place.
Instead of all that, what does UKIP offer the electorate in these local elections? Three utterly different policies to revolutionise local politics. First, a strict no-whipping rule. We trust our candidates and expect that their actions and votes will be driven by their consciences and the wishes of their voters, not by the demands of the party machine. This may cause difficulties in party management, but so what? Better that they serve their electorate than the interests of party.
Second, we are utterly committed to holding binding local referenda on contentious local issues such as planning for housing, say, or wind farms, when a set number of the registered voters demand one. We mean what we say about driving decision- making out of the hands of politicians and into the hands of people.
Third, we are committed to actual accountability, by offering recall votes on councillors who lose the trust of their electorate.
The real threat to the old establishment isn’t so much votes cast but an existential threat to their entire way of thinking. To the party hierarchies the world is divided into us and them: “us” who decide and “them” who comply. UKIP is “them” personified. And it doesn’t matter if you are a Labour MP in the North or a suburban southern Tory; it doesn’t matter if historically you have weighed rather than counted your votes. What UKIP presents is a threat to your world view, to your dreams of entitlement.
Many seem to think that we present a greater threat to Conservatives, and their shaky majorities. But in a way the threat is more moral than electoral. The Tories look at us, then look at their social democratic leadership and face an identity crisis. It is hard for them to argue against lower taxes, national independence, grammar schools and personal responsibility.
In the Conservative Party they must defend wind farms, excessive international aid and gay marriage — not something they ever thought they were elected to do.
It is sad, but the green benches of Parliament are occupied by and large by a breed of men and women who have seen politics as a way for self-aggrandisement — a career path, from college to researcher to adviser to backbencher to minister — without so much as dropping a foot into the world where the rest of us live. The world of financial worry. The world where education fails the poorest and crushes aspiration. The world where people on the minimum wage still pay income tax. The world of “them”.
So I give the elite fair notice. Today somebody is listening to “them”: at last they have a choice.