Oscar Wilde, Lady Bracknell – please excuse my paraphrasing, but “…to lose one prospective MP may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness.” So how are we supposed to rate UKIP’s feat of losing three parliamentary candidates, all in one freaky Friday? A suicide attempt, an aggressive cancer or natural selection at a slightly alarming rate? Should Nigel Farage be pitied for having such reckless mavericks in his midst which he has been unable to properly vet, or blame him for his poor attempts at party management? Did David Cameron turn out to be right in referring to UKIP’s “Swivel-eyed loons”? Moreover, is UKIP damaged in the eyes of its potential supporters?
For UKIP detractors, cause for celebration never seems so far away. The councillor who can’t cope with “negroes” and Nigel Farage’s intention to scrap race discrimination laws sees UKIP struggling to conceal that charge which detractors most keenly believe the party is all about – the big “R”. Racism can be the only conclusion when an elected official has a problem with people on the grounds of race. The charge of racism is also almost impossible to avoid when UKIP’s leader talks about scrapping race relation laws. If these were trivial laws, they could be quietly forgotten, but so can major ones if time renders them irrelevant. It is after all still illegal to be drunk in charge of a cow but given the importance of race and employment laws, to propose their abolition when their effectiveness is relatively recent, is to open the doors to discrimination no matter much it is claimed that race was not the issue whipped up as a result of such remarks. It seems the more UKIP tries to clarify that its stance on immigration is all about practical considerations concerning housing and employment, the more it fails to conceal the attitudes it promotes and the type of person it inevitably attracts.
Even if we concentrate only on the events of March 20th 2015, the ‘racism’ spectre hovers over once again with the prospective candidate for Westmorland & Lonsdale Jonathan Stanley, citing “racism and bullying”. For UKIP, this triple whammy Friday covers all bases of the public’s perception of politicians – corruption, racism and bad conduct. So can it stand the hits it has taken?
For many, the way an organisation responds to a crisis is an indicator of its capabilities. In Westmorland, a replacement candidate was appointed within five hours and was able to talk up his credentials as a local, no-nonsense businessman who is “…sick of the posh boys”, presumably having not yet met his party’s first two MPs nor the pupils of the public school he visited the same day. But this last point resonates well with a lot of the electorate. It is one thing to be ‘posh’ but have man-of-the-people appeal – ie: in touch. It is another to be ‘posh’ and revel in it and only hang with your own kind, à la Cameron, Osborne and Boris. So at least in Westmorland & Lonsdale, UKIP has probably not diminished its chances, and quite possibly increased them. How the replacement candidates shape up in Folkestone & Hythe, as well as Scunthorpe remains to be seen.
To its supporters, UKIP may now look rather like all the other parties, which long term, could actually work in its favour. The likelihood of a political party that is untainted by human frailty is at the very least, a fantasy, so serious followers who buy the stance on the EU and immigration and the need to say the unsayable on race issues, may feel that the party, which is perhaps a bit beyond infancy now but still in a state of reckless youth, is now maturing. And UKIP, if it has any real wisdom, will have anticipated that their surge over the last couple of years would never go completely unchecked, and that though it stands at 15% in the polls at the time of writing, it may have realistically anticipated that it would level out at around 12%, or at least somewhere over 10%.
With under seven weeks until the election UKIP could still ride out this latest storm, but ought to make sustained attempts now to maintain party discipline if it is to sustain its appeal and not become the 21st century’s Referendum Party. And UKIP’s opponents should not pop the champagne corks just yet. As other parties struggle to nail down what it is they stand for and what their potential voters want, UKIP remain, despite glitches, stubbornly focused on both identity and aims. Though their manifesto on education, the economy and the NHS are far from clear, they have got this far simply on the perceptions of being pro-British and anti-establishment. Others would trade several principles for this kind of clarity.