Is Nigel Farage hurting the Eurosceptic cause?

Posted on 4 April 2014

Wednesday night was a very good night for Nigel Farage. The Ukip leader won the second of his two debates with deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg rather more decisively than the first. For the uncommitted, Farage won on debating style. Clegg was much too narrow on substance too. The Lib Dem leader consistently pitched only to the minority of existing liberal pro-Europeans – seeking their European votes this May – and rarely made the arguments which could well broaden that base to a majority. The Ukip leader tried harder to connect beyond his base of support. So as Farage makes the political weather, he worries pro-Europeans and cheers up those who would like Britain to get out of the EU. But should that be the other way around, asks Sunder Katwala.

EU v. Ukip Photo: YouGov

Photo: YouGov

Here is the Nigel Farage paradox: the more that Ukip’s media profile, poll rating and party membership has grown over the last two years, the more that support for the party’s core mission – that Britain should leave the European Union – seems to have shrunk.

The YouGov tracker on an in/out referendum captures this Farage paradox clearly. Last year, there was an average lead for “out” over “in” of sixteen points: 48% to 32%. Since then, Nigel Farage has rarely been off the television, but the trend is now neck and neck. After Farage won the first debate, the Sunday Times/YouGov poll had a six point lead for “in”, the biggest lead for the pro-EU case for two years. The polls will continue to fluctuate, but the rise of Ukip has certainly put “in” back on level terms.

There is no doubt that Nigel Farage resonates very effectively for the one in four who are certain that Britain should leave. Those who feel most “left behind” hear their deeper discontents about how Britain has changed being voiced in mainstream politics for the first time. Yet the Ukip mood music can be a turn-off for softer Eurosceptics and “don’t knows” who are not uncomfortable with the society they live in, and risks turning those who were “leaning more out than in” back into reluctant Europeans. Hence Douglas Carswell’s timely warning to his fellow Eurosceptics that “we must change our tune to sing something that chimes with the whole country.” The libertarian Conservative argues that the “better off out” camp must offer an optimistic vision of the future, not just a reverie for a lost Britain, or what he describes as an “angry nativism”.

Immigration has driven Ukip support, which is much stronger among the one-in-four Britons who would stop all immigration if they could. Carswell says that the argument for having more control over migration needs to acknowledge that this can’t happen in the real world.

“Immigration, many Outers seem to believe, is our strongest card. It links one of the public’s number one concerns with the question of our EU membership. Perhaps. But the Out campaign must not descend into any kind of angry nativism. First and second generation Britons must feel as comfortable voting to quit the EU as those whose ancestors came over before William the Conqueror. An independent Britain is not going to have no immigration.”

Nigel Farage last night had to disown a Ukip leaflet with a Native American pictured and the slogan ‘He ignored immigration and now he lives on a reservation.’ That nativist pitch is an example of the gap between some of Ukip’s national media messages in mainstream media debates and the much harder messages being delivered in some local posters and leaflets.

Carswell is surely right that if most people think Euroscepticism is dominated by nostalgia for the past, anger about what has changed, and pessimism for the future, it has no realistic chance of persuading most Britons to make the leap.

But there are two significant challenges for this more liberal and optimistic Euroscepticism. Ukip could prosper as a party on a narrower and angrier argument. That is enough to get 10% in the polls and perhaps winning a European election, but it would be a much less effective approach in a referendum, where the target is 50% of the vote, not 30% of the narrower electorate who turn up to vote in May 2014. “Outsider” parties like Ukip have, since 1999, performed strongly in European elections and then faded when the question is who should govern Britain, as our report this week, The rise and rise of the outsider election, illustrated.

The other challenge is that this open and liberal Euroscepticism may be an even more elite project than liberal Europhilia. Among the public at large, the “better off out” case currently is resonating most with those who do prefer the past to the future, as both attitudinal and generational data suggests. The over 60s would prefer to get out – while Sunday’s YouGov poll showed a preference for in among all groups born after 1954, and so who did not cast their first votes until after Britain had joined the club. The case for “out” can’t win if it can only persuade those who can personally remember a Britain outside the EU.

This article originally appeared in the New Statesman. It has been modified for British Future. 

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future. 




  • Comment by Tom Burkard at 16:27 on 05.07.14

    I emigrated from the US 40 years ago, and for the first 10 years I lived in Birmingham. At that time it was a microcosm of Britain and Empire, and after the racial paranoia of my native land it was amazing to live in a city where such things just didn’t matter very much. I married a woman whose mother was born in Ireland (her father was an English policeman), and in the building trades you encountered people from everywhere. My builder’s merchants was run by Sikhs who became close personal friends, my electrician was Jewish, my brickie was Jamaican, and an 18-yr-old orphan from St Kitts became like a second son to me. And of course everyone had their favourite curry house. In those ten years I saw only one incident that could reasonably be termed ‘racial’–and that passed off without any aggro.

    Things have got a lot worse since and I have no doubt that ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ have a lot to answer for–as does uncontrolled immigration. It’s important to note that most of our immigrants are now white European–not that I have the slightest problem with this. I grew up with Polish-Americans and have been to Poland twice. And if I were still in the building trades, I would have very little choice to employ Poles or Bulgarians: my son, who is now a roofer, admits that it’s such a low-status job that even the prospect of good wages isn’t enough to tempt young people who’ve been continuously told at school to “aim high” and “don’t settle for a dead-end job”.

    Nonetheless, I can understand how a lot of people here feel. I even know a Pakistani immigrant who came here when he was five (and who is strongly committed to developing a common British identity for all, including Muslims) who understands how destabilising the situation is. Admittedly, I had an easy ride when I immigrated because Americans of British descent still share a lot of the same intellectual and cultural heritage, but I feel strongly that I should respect the wishes of people who don’t want to see their native land changed all out of recognition.

    These were among the main reasons why I proposed the Phoenix Free School of Oldham, which was committed to ending the apartheid that disfigures the NW of England. We found that both Asians and whites understood that this situation could not continue indefinitely, and that there had to be ways to create the same sort of climate that existed in Birmingham a generation ago. As a historian (twenty years ago I got my first degree in English History at UEA) I felt that educators were wrong to ignore the history of the British Empire, except perhaps as a litany of oppression and injustice. This was really brought home to me when I stayed at a motel in Arkansas that was owned by Hindus–we had a good long talk about our common British heritage.

    Alas, the Dept for Education was far more concerned about maintaining their rigid standards of bureaucracy than about our academic and social programme, and funding was withdrawn at the end of February. But lastly–and rather the point of this post–is that I stood for UKIP in the last council elections. I did so not so much because of my concern for immigration, which is a complex and difficult issue. Indeed, nothing would be crazier than to pull up the drawbridge. I joined UKIP because I believe that democracy is worth saving, and that the EU is now a corrupt political establishment that supports even more corrupt cartels. It is the sort of institution which is instinctively supported by the kind of people who man our bureaucracies–such as the DfE.