I suppose I shouldn’t have been upset by the results of the two by-elections last night – but I was. I suppose I still had a slight hope in my mind that things weren’t really as bad as the opinion polls, and my gut feelings, suggested they were. I was wrong. I often am. As it was, UKIP triumphed in Clacton, and came very close to triumphing even more dramatically in Heywood and Middleton.
The post-mortems are already happening in so many places. All kinds of people are looking for all kinds of reasons, and all kinds of people to blame – and it’s easy to find possible scapegoats. I do it myself, regularly railing against the BBC – I even run my own parody account based on the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson, portraying him as the founder of the Nigel Farage Fan Club. We can – and often do – try to blame the Daily Mail and its tabloid companions, for their seemingly incessant campaigns against immigrants, trying to blame them for everything from unemployment and housing problems to the challenges facing the NHS. We can try to blame the Labour Party for failing to stand up for what is right – failing to appeal to its core voters, failing to understand ordinary people. We can blame them for accepting the anti-immigrant agenda of the Mail etc without question – or we can blame them for not accepting it, and hence not understanding the genuine concerns of the ordinary people.
We can try to blame Nigel Farage and his band of chancers for pulling the wool over the voters’ eyes – and they do, portraying themselves as different from the ‘ordinary’ politicians when in almost every way they are indistinguishable. We can blame them for using dog-whistle politics, appealing to the lowest common denominator, using racism – sometimes direct, sometimes just with a nod and a wink- and they do, no question about it. We can blame the Tories for pandering to their extreme right – or we can blame them for not pandering to their extreme right, so leaving a space for the likes of Farage.
We can blame the banks and so forth for trying to distract us from the real reasons for the financial crash – and hence convincing us to accept the neo-liberal agenda of austerity. Oh, there are a whole lot of ways in which we can find people to blame. The blame game is an easy one to play – which is part of the reason for the success of UKIP. They play it better than almost anyone, convincing us sometimes that the EU is to blame for everything, sometimes that immigrants are to blame for everything, sometimes both. Sometimes they blame ‘LibLabCon’. It’s easy to do. And yet it misses the point.
In the end, the problem isn’t with ‘someone else’. It’s us. The Pogo comic above has been used for a number of purposes – initially highlighting the dangers of McCarthyism, where people who were ‘un-American’ were effectively hounded, scapegoated and persecuted, and later for ‘Earth-day’, highlighting how self-destructive we are in the way we treat our environment.
That’s the scariest thing about yesterday’s election. Not that it’s somehow unrepresentative of how we are, but that it might be. The things that UKIP uses as dog whistles, the racism, the homophobia, the xenophobia, the desire to blame people weaker than ourselves, only function as dog whistles because there’s a lot of racism, homophobia and xenophobia about. It taps into something about us. Of course it’s only part of UKIP’s appeal, because the other call to arms, the one against the self-serving Westminster Elite, hits another critical nerve. The Westminster elite are self-serving, disconnected and deserving primarily of contempt. Farage is quite right about that – though he conveniently fails to mention that he’s one of them in almost every way. The trouble is, it is us that have let them get that way. And we continue to do so – even by voting UKIP.
I don’t have any answers. I don’t think there really are any answers. When we’re fighting against ourselves, it’s hard to find them. We really are our own worst enemies.