Saturday 7 February 2015

Matt Goodwin: Court jester to the Westminster Bubble

Nigel’s army is advancing into Tory territory says Matt Goodwin in The Times. Precisely the kind of hackneyed, shallow and facile analysis I am heartily sick of. Let's take a look shall we?
Ukip is extending its appeal to middle-aged Tory voters while snapping at Labour’s heels in a swathe of northern seats. Nigel Farage arrived in the Labour-held seat of Rotherham yesterday, preparing to launch the most important campaign in his party’s 21-year history. Ukip, which spent 20 years in the wilderness, is currently third in the national polls and widely expected to increase its tally of two MPs.
Course anyone who has done any kind of serious migration analysis in the polls knows that Ukip is not predicted to do very well. No doubt it will radically change the finishing order, but a great many seats are as safe as seats gets. Not least Lib Dems who will not be facing the without that many predict. they have string MPs with a solid local reputation. Farage's arrival in Rotherham was to preach his facile and inaccurate multiculturalism mantras which, while plausible, have no basis in reality and did little for the BNP in a general election. Lacking any strategic acumen, Farage has sought to capitlise on the Rotherham scandal, reading the runes wrong, thinking it doesn't come at the expense of traditional Ukip support. "The party has neither the manpower nor money to match the established parties." says Goodwin.

That's as maybe, but after twenty years and a lot of EU funding it does have sizable party resources and access to knowledge with which to produce policy but as yet there is no evidence, instead relying on Farage's off-the-cuff, shallow interpretations of events. This narrative that Ukip is a plucky, under resourced party is wholly false. The reason it has yet to come up with any credible intellectual capital is because Farage is threatened by anyone capable of producing it. Goodwin continues:
But after two successful by-election campaigns in Clacton and Rochester & Strood it has learnt how to overcome first-past-the-post. Its success at the European elections last May has also inspired its plan for a short but loud general election campaign in about 30 seats, with a smaller number of “top targets” receiving much greater support. 
Firstly we must define success. If Goodwin is half the psephologist he claims to be, he will know that the overall vote share swing against what Ukip calls the "LibLabcon" was less than three percent, and it is only the vagaries of EU proportional representation that produced what we might define as a success. It has not learned how to overcome the FPTP system. It has benefited from two high profile defections of two Tories who enjoy a fairly high profile, one of whom a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph.

Ukip has yet to prove it can get one of its own elected in normal circumstances. The media seems to be running a policy of giving Ukip enough rope to hang themselves, and thus far, it is working. But that rope is what got Carswell and Reckless elected, not popular sentiment. Continuing:
Last week they told YouGov that immigration is the most important issue facing Britain, while seven in ten Ukip supporters tell Ipsos-MORI that the issue will directly influence their choice in May (the next concern for Kippers, the NHS, is some 30 points behind). The established parties are now playing it down but Mr Farage is simply too visible to ignore what has become his raison d’être. 
That's seven in ten Ukip supporters. Knowing Ukips profile as I do, their supporters couldn't be more detached from reality if they tried. Immigration is a fickle metric and weaving any kind of narrative from this is a fools errand. The NHS has claimed top spot a number of times and will continue to do so.
Some in Ukip have tried to push their leader away from the issue, pointing to the fact that very few voters know much about their other policies. Self-styled reformers identify issues such as energy, banking reform and the recall of MPs as ones that could connect with groups that remain hostile to the party and could propel it into the 20-30 per cent range: women, young people, the squeezed middle class and perhaps even recent generations of ethnic minorities who share their social conservatism. 
Hmm, well this is something this blog can speak with some authority on. This blog has maintained throughout that Ukip positioning itself as the BNP-lite has an inherent glass ceiling and that while the present quasi-BNP message will (and has) galavanised the former minnow party vote, it would not expand party appeal - or indeed help the eurosceptic cause. Ukip has become an etho-nationalist party singing the same hymns as the BNP to capitalise on Rotherham. That has no future. It started with the euro-election posters and degraded from there. Continuing:
But Mr Farage is a pragmatist whose instincts will lead him to focus on the same message that has fuelled his rise: opposition to Europe, free movement and Westminster. He knows that a traditional Ukip message combined with his increased visibility is enough to deliver half a dozen Ukip MPs, not least in Thanet South where he needs to win to avoid a disruptive leadership challenge. 
This is where Goodwin reveals his greater ignorance. As we have remarked before Goodwin mistakes Ukip as a political party, not a rejectionist nihilistic cult. Farage is not a pragmatist, He is an airheaded opportunist - and Goodwins narrative that there has been a rise in the right is wholly baloney. Vote share wise it has done little to threaten the establishment in any meaningful sense. Moreover, the increased visibility is a false reading. Ukip might well be the most talked about party on social media but is also the most highly ridiculed with anti-Ukip hashtags actually trending on Twitter. They are a national laughing stock. Few with their heads screwed on think Ukip will deliver more than four MPs, and that's on the rather large assumption that Reckless even keeps his tiny majority. This blog certainly does not expect Farage will be elected and we have gone on record many times saying this will most likely lead to a destructive and public civil war. Continuing:
This is the “triple motive” that characterises Ukip’s core voters — the left-behind. Typically earning between £20,000-30,000, they have enough to get by but not enough to get ahead, are not feeling the recovery and do not expect to feel it in the future. This is why David Cameron’s mantra about a long-term economic plan is not winning back as many Tory defectors to Ukip as he had hoped. The Tories’ failure to grasp the roots of Mr Farage’s appeal is reflected in Ukip’s stubbornly persistent support in the polls: 15 per cent, twice what they need to have a major impact in May. 
This is a narrative I might have agreed with a year ago. Ukip appeals to angry middle aged white men. The demographics confirm this, but the Ukipist mindset is a pathology. Hardcore Ukipists are unappeasable miserablists who are determined to see any economic progress as a sham. This is what the Tories fail to understand. They cannot win back nihilistic Ukipists because they could be given everything they demand but would still be Mr Angry. That is what they are, consequently the Tories are better concentrating on votes they can win. Farage's appeal is based on who he isn't, not who he is. Goodwin promotes the narrative that there is a rise of the right, but in reality, he knows as well as I that the Ukip vote, if not tanking, is stagnating. That glass ceiling we talked about. Going on:
Progressives like to argue that all of this represents the last cry of an angry generation as it slips over the horizon, to be replaced by a more liberal and inclusive majority. But while Mr Farage’s base is grey, there are signs it is getting younger. Last May more than 40 per cent of Ukip voters were younger than 54. Polls from recent by-elections also suggest that support is spread more evenly across generations than in the past. In Rochester & Strood more than one in three 18 to 34-year-olds and almost one in two 35 to 44-year-olds voted Ukip. 
This is the psephological knowledge from which Goodwin derives his broader conclusions. I would argue that there has been a broader shift in that angry old man has become younger, as a result of the social media phenomenon, where mainstream media is disseminated to a much broader audience. While print market share might have declined, mainstream publications still have dominance on the narrative and they have their own agendas, using Ukip as useful idiots. It is an instructive metric to watch but it doesn't factor in something less predictable. There is a gulf between voting sentiment and public sentiment on specific issues.

Elections are won not on issues but the public mood and the Sun is in touch with the public mood in this editorial. As much as there may well be a broad support for Ukip sentiment, at the last minute, as with 1997 there could be a last minute shift of public mood as people contemplate just how awful a Miliband government will be. This is a metric no amount of forensic tooth-combing of polls can tell you. And herein lies the folly in over reliance on metric interpretations by academics such as Goodwin. It's less about the numbers as the vibe. Over-reliance on statistical models is how the climate debate became so distorted from reality. Scientists come a cropper when they think their piece of the puzzle is the whole of the picture, as Goodwin has. Goodwin becomes even less credible:
Nor is there a guarantee that radical right parties cannot replenish. Look at Austria, where young people who feel excluded from opportunities that their parents enjoyed are one of the strongest voting blocks for the Freedom party.
This is where I fall out with Goodwin's broader thesis. Britain is not Austria, nor is it Germany, or Spain. We are a wholly separate culture with totally different dynamics, with different economic prospects and the charachter of mainland European surge movements are wholly different in character to Ukip, even if we were to accept Goodwin's charachterisation of Ukip - which is pretty far off the mark. He expects it to behave like a rational political party, rather than a cult of misanthropic losers. He continues.
It is true that Ukip’s immediate prospects in May are in Conservative-held seats in the south east, namely Thanet South, Boston & Skegness, Thurrock and Castle Point. Assuming Ukip retains Clacton and Rochester & Strood, it will mark an uprising in the same corner of England that in the 14th century gave rise to the Peasants’ Revolt and its charismatic leader, Wat Tyler. But Labour cannot afford to be complacent about its own regional strongholds.

There is now overwhelming evidence that while many Ukip supporters voted Tory in 2010, they traditionally backed Labour. Far from being tribal Tories, many of them only turned to Mr Cameron in 2010 after a long and meandering walk across the political landscape. They were more likely to support Blair than Major, and have thus given Ukip’s vote a fluidity that is often ignored. This explains why at recent by-elections non-Conservatives who voted Ukip outnumbered ex-Conservatives who did so. It is not that Mr Farage has suddenly mastered how to throw a wider net; it is that Ukip was never exclusively a second home for disgruntled Tories to begin with. There is no good reason why Ukip will not prosper to the same extent under a Labour-led government as it has under the Conservative-led coalition. Consider this: of the 50 most demographically friendly seats for Ukip in the country, 42 are held by Labour.
Here is where we get to the root of Goodwin's confusion. Goodwin mistakes the rise of Ukip as a political movement akin with that chartists or the Peasants's Revolt. Movements have specific agendas, demands and and strategies. Ukip does not. Ukip is a most modern creation, picking up where the BNP left off, improving on the technique in some areas, and missing the mark in others. But it is an entity which depends on the media, speaks through the media and taps into an existing voter base rather than nurturing one of its own. Rather than casting a wide net, its only expertise is rooting out those voters who would be inclined to vote for an anti-establishment entity. An inbuilt minority. Ukip is certainly not winning any arguments.

What Goodwin talks about is a party that shifts voter allegiances, not a movement that inspires non-voters to to vote - thus is it a marginal shift within traditional dynamics, and not hugely out of the ordinary. Goodwin mistakes the Clacton and Rochester victories as genuine expressions of voter sentiment rather than a product of a media circus, and mistakenly imposes that dynamic on seats where Ukip has failed to make an impact in its own right without Tory defectors. Goodwin concludes:
Mr Farage hopes to use his campaign to pressure Labour into committing to hold a referendum on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and to launch a much broader revolt against an unpopular Ed Miliband should he become prime minister. Many Kippers genuinely believe that they are ideally positioned to benefit from a toxic Tory brand in the north, a collapse of the Liberal Democrats and fraying bonds between Labour and the left-behind. Evidence of what might happen can be found in Lord Ashcroft’s polls. In northern seats such as Burnley, where Ukip has no active branch, it is second with 29 per cent of the vote. 
Again this is a misnomer. Goodwin assumes that Farage is strategising like a real politician would, in the way that a real party would. To do so is to misunderstand Farage. Farage does not think ahead of his next interview or the next poll. Farage mistaken believes all publicity is good publicity and is surrounded by lackeys who tell him he is always doing the right thing. Many Kippers believe many different things, all equally deluded and absurd, because they believe the man, not the plan. If Labour did win power, there would be zero prospect of an EU referendum, and any grown-up will tell you that. Farage probably knows that himself. Farage has no ambition or strategy beyond the promotion of Farage. Unless you understand that, you will never understand Ukip and the polls will continue to give false readings. Finally, Goodwin remarks that:
Such an outcome could be replicated across a swathe of urban Labour territory, with Ukip emerging as the second force in dozens of constituencies, bringing back into play seats that have not been competitive for generations. Labour will be confronted with the same challenge that socialists are struggling to contain in France: a radical right widening its reach in their industrial and once loyal heartlands. This is another reason why two general elections in short succession could be disastrous for Labour.
Here we are in fantasy territory. As much as Ukip is not "radical right" (and certainly not widening its reach), the North is as likely to return Labour MPs as ever they were, with a distinct distrust of Ukip, not least on the NHS. Even Rotherham has only an outside chance of returning a Ukip MP. While Goodwin is unable to see it, Ukip is a national laughing stock, with contradictory, vague and empty policies, with zero strategic or intellectual capital, far removed from anything comparable with European surge movements, lead by a media celebrity who is held in low regard by the majority of people. It has peaked, it is going nowhere and lacks the capacity to break beyond its own narrow demographic appeal.

With elections now being in part decided by leaders debates, Farage may speak well to a sizable constituency, but not enough to make a breakthrough, and will stand without the means to forge a credible political movement. Many have asked what happens after Farage, and if you can answer that question, you get closer to a definition of what Ukip really is. And when you understand that much, you will see why Ukip will not maintain its momentum and why the rune-reading of Goodwin should not be taken seriously. The fact that he is taken seriously speaks to the deficiencies of our bubble dwelling media.

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