This week I went to Not London. You probably know it well. Some of you might even live there. As for any Londoner venturing outside the capital, it was a reminder of the joyful and alien world existing outside the M25. I partook in all the clichés. I marvelled at being able to order four pints and somehow receive change from a tenner. I sat up when I flicked through the paper and saw a beautiful five-bedroom country house for sale near Halifax, and wept when I saw you could buy it for the same amount of money it would cost to buy a crooked and pokey two-bedroom flat in Camberwell. I went on a train, and talked to some strangers, before getting on a bus and talking to more strangers. Truly, I was struck dumb by the stream of reminders that life in the capital is divorced and a life apart from the rest of our green and pleasant land.
Whilst there, I visited a pub, and conversation drifted onto the recent success of UKIP in the local elections. “Didn’t Mr Farage do well?” one drinker said. “Very well indeed, wonderful to see!” exclaimed another. One by one my companions revealed themselves to be either UKIP voters, or at least vaguely sympathising with the party’s cause. This surprised me. My drinking buddies were all intelligent and well educated. They weren’t, as the metropolitan press had led me to expect, foaming-at-the-mouth semi-closeted racists. Instead, they were decent, reasonable and otherwise liberal people. What, I asked them, had caused them to put their support behind the party memorably dismissed by Ken Clarke as a bunch of “clowns” and “racists”?
A variety of responses came. The UK was going to see an influx of Hungarians it couldn’t cope with. The Spanish don’t offer the same social security to retirees as we do. Brussels is forcing us to eat bendy bananas. One by one, the arguments came. All were sincere, and most were sensible, if relying heavily on anecdotes in the absence of facts. But more than anything, every man and woman spoke with quiet desperation and a feeling that they weren’t in control of their lives. Farage, they said, understood them and spoke for the common man. Of course, they realised he was hardly going to be he next Prime Minister, but all saw the valuable opportunity to give the established order a bloody nose.
It’s very easy, as many have done, to dismiss UKIP’s recent success as a one-off protest vote. From the cosy confines Fleet Street, it seems entirely reasonable to Farage and Co’s rise as the result of a public petulantly kicking-out in-between elections. As you discuss the matter over a pint with your liberal, metropolitan friends, it’s easy to agree that this is the case. Then, if you want further confirmation, you can take to Twitter, where all the liberal metropolitan journalists you have elected to follow will tell you exactly the same thing.
But outside the comforts of the south-east and the echo-chamber of the Twittersphere, something strange is happening. Not sinister, but certainly odd. By virtue of the economic winds and a freakish quirk in the electoral arithmetic of the first-past-the-post system, vast swaths of the country currently have very little political representation.
Farage’s oft-stated mantra is that “there are two types of people in politics. There are those that want to be something and those that want to do something.” Yes, this is a cynically crafted and nauseating soundbite. But there’s an element of truth to it – Farage knows he will never hold a post of any real importance, meaning he’s free from yoke of the party line to speak his mind and give the government the kicking that so many passionately feel it deserves.
As Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all fight tooth and nail over the centre ground, there’s a large vacuum on the periphery and a disenfranchised population desperate to have a voice. Write Farage off at your peril. We may have already begun to see the rise of a decidedly odd champion of the people.
Alex is a writer and media professional who's based in South London and gets quite grumpy with anyone who says mean things about life south of the river. He once had a couple of pieces published by the Guardian, which he stills likes to mention when talking to attractive girls (with frustratingly limited success). He watches a reasonable amount of telly, goes to the theatre a lot, and spends far too much time on Twitter. His most notable journalistic achievement was breaking the news to Dick (from 'Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow') that Michael Jackson had died.