Opinion: Farage: The Nostradamus of Politics

Fear is a powerful motivator. Take, for example, its use in two political campaigns, one from each side of the Atlantic: the Daisy Girl ad, used in the re-election campaign of US president Lyndon Johnson in 1964; and the Labour tax bombshell broadcast, from our own Conservatives in 1992.

One made American voters ask, “Do I really want Barry Goldwater – a man who joked about lobbing a nuclear bomb at the Kremlin – to have his finger hovering over the red button?” The other made British voters ask, “Do I really want Labour to get its hands on my pay packet?”

What gave them their electoral magic is that the fear the campaigns evoked could not be proved wrong prior to polling day; standing alone in the polling booth with that stumpy pencil and their ballot paper, the fear could still nag away at them. They couldn’t know whether Goldwater would set America’s missiles flying. They couldn’t know that Labour would definitely put their taxes up.

A more recent example would be the UKIP campaign in the Eastleigh by-election. The issue the party wanted to focus on was clear: immigration, specifically the hordes of Romanians and Bulgarians waiting for 1 January 2014 so they could descend upon Britain.

The by-election was a chance for voters to send a message, ahead of 1 January, that they didn’t want the borders thrown open. It worked for UKIP, frankly, lifting the party from losing its deposit in 2010 to silver-medal position in the by-election.

Fear was stoked by months of coverage in the Daily Express referring to “a mass influx” on 1 January itself, reports in the Daily Mail of flights arriving on New Year’s Day being “sold out”, and the Daily Star suggesting half the entire population of Romania might up sticks and come here just to claim benefits. UKIP rode this tiger, with its leader Nigel Farage writing a piece for the Express endorsing their anti-immigration “crusade”.

This rising tide of bile hit a snag on New Year’s Day, however, when just one bloke, Victor Spirescu, seemed to turn up. One of our MEP candidates, Giles Goodall, pretty much got it right with his tweet poking fun at the fear-mongers; pleasingly, that tweet has been retweeted over 3,500 times and favourited by over 1,000 people.

His dire predictions having failed to materialise, Farage now comes across like some kind of modern-day Nostradamus. Having foreseen, as Owen Jones puts it, UKIPocalypse, his party is now reduced to tweeting figures from the Daily Express that migrants “could hypothetically” cost billions. Weak.

The problem for UKIP – and indeed for all the tabloids (tellingly, their front pages now seem not to carry any mention of immigration) – is that the fear they stoked up proved illusory. Waking last Wednesday morning, none of us found Bulgarians sleeping in our bathtubs.

The anti-European attacks on “Brussels” have worked in the past because they are so non-specific. Their problem this time was that their nonsense was all too specific. Politicians and journalists could actually stand at the arrivals area in Luton airport and wait for Wizz Air flight W63701, the first to arrive from Romania. That it duly did, a quarter empty and with mostly UK residents on board.

In contrast to the fear-based campaigns of Johnson in 1964 and the Tories in 1992, the fear of millions of Romanians and Bulgarians swimming the Channel at midnight has been proven misplaced months before voters mark their ballot papers in the European elections. People will keep on thinking immigration is a problem, but at least on this occasion perhaps some of them will have seen that much anti-immigration rhetoric is just so much hot air.

* Stuart Bonar was the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in Plymouth Moor View.

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18 Comments

  • The BBC has played a key role in building up the paranoia on immigration.

    Stuart Bonar is right to point out the role of certain tabloid newspapers when he writes –
    ” Fear was stoked by months of coverage in the Daily Express referring to “a mass influx” on 1 January itself, reports in the Daily Mail of flights arriving on New Year’s Day being “sold out”, and the Daily Star suggesting half the entire population of Romania might up sticks and come here just to claim benefits. UKIP rode this tiger, with its leader Nigel Farage writing a piece for the Express endorsing their anti-immigration “crusade”. ”

    But the powerandinfluence of the BBC is far greater than the relatively tiny circulation of these newspapers.
    The constant repetition of UKIP stories, the more than frequent appearances of Farage across everything from local radio, to 24 hour rolling TV News, has built the Farage brand in a way that would have cost him millions if hehad been buying advertising on a commercial station.

    The mythical “impartiality” of the BBC has been a sham. Ask yourself how much coverage the BBC has given to the leader of say The Green Party or the leader of Plaid Cymru during the same six months.

  • Giles Goodall 8th Jan '14 - 11:15am

    John Tilley: I’m afraid I have to agree with you on the BBC on this occasion. They swallowed UKIP’s phoney narrative about ‘opening up our borders’ hook, line and sinker, joining in the 1 January hysteria without properly examining what was actually changing on that day (removal of restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians for certain jobs, i.e. not very much). BBC News coverage leading up to and on 1 January was completely disproportionate to the event.

  • Stuart Bonar 8th Jan '14 - 11:41am

    John & Giles: I agree with you both. Indeed I formally complained to the BBC about the News at Ten broadcast on 1st January because it featured a man who’d arrived on that Wizz Air flight, presenting him as a migrant arriving in the hope of finding a job somewhere. They left out the fact I had seen reported elsewhere in the media that he is an A&E doctor arriving to take up a job he’d already been recruited for at an NHS hospital.

  • Paul in Twickenham 8th Jan '14 - 1:08pm

    Re the BBC: on the other hand the BBC radio 4 news last night said that a poll showing that 77% of people wanting to see immigration cut showed that public opinion was “divided”. Now I would agree that 55-45 is “divided”. 60-40 is at the edge of “divided”. But 77-(<23)? That's a landslide. What is to be done?

  • Paul

    “Divided” means there are two groups of people with different opinions. It doesn’t mean the two groups are the same size. That would be “equally divided”.

  • Paul in Twickenham 8th Jan ’14 – 1:08pm
    … … But 77-(<23)? That's a landslide. What is to be done?

    I am guessing you are asking "What is to be done?" about the BBC. To be fair they are not the only ones to juggle survey data to fit their own agenda. Stephen Tall here in LDV is quite a juggler. He takes the responses to LDV surveys as being representative of all party members. Closer examination reveals that only about half the people registered as party members with LDV take part in these surveys. That does not stop Stephen on his Blog, or in various publications and on the BBC claiming that he knows what the majority of all LIberal De,ocrats think.

    The BBC has more influence than even Stephen Tall. It has demonstrated an enthusiasm for talking up immigration and race issue for decades. Long before most of us knew much about Farage, the BBC was giving a disproportionate amount of coverage to the BNP. A TV critic at the time suggested that there was a "pornography of fascism" and that the BBC indulged itself in exaggerating the strength and growth of the far right because " it made good television". The BBC News had become "INFOTAINMENT".

    Anyone who has watched the recent series of Borgen will have noted the TV executive whose thirst for ratings and anything that "made good television" outstripped any sense of responsibility .

    So what is to be done? Well almost every household in the country could be over £100 pounds better off if we were not forced to pay the llicence fee. Why does the BBC get billions of pounds a year from its own poll tax? If we want slanted, distorted infotainment we can go straight to the tabloid press or Sky, or some other arm of Murdochism. At least we are not forced to pay for them.

  • I just wanted to add that UKIP have used the immigration issue to get support very quickly. Whether that is right or wrong is open to opinion, and to be fair people have certainly responded as you can see from the local elections, polls and reaction from the government. Do we have to be careful that our view of how bad things are if we left the EU could also possibly be seen to be scaremongering, it would do the party some harm to be seen as hypocritical.

  • I do not think Nigel Farage will last much longer. I think his support will vanish once people realise Nick Clegg is a far more hospitable leader. As a committed Lib Dem, I like the thought of creating a greater EU stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. Like Vince Cable; I am all in favour of more immigration not less and I am truly thankful to the EU for giving us freedom of movement all across Europe. Now that the voters can see for themselves that there is nothing to fear from Rumania and Bulgaria, I think we should campaign hard during 2014 to speed-up the negotiations for Turkey’s entry.

  • jedibeeftrix 8th Jan '14 - 9:23pm

    “If we want slanted, distorted infotainment we can go straight to the tabloid press or Sky, or some other arm of Murdochism. At least we are not forced to pay for them.”

    you aren’t. I don’t.

  • Can we just shut up about Farage please? I am sick of his gurning face. If Nick Clegg is happy to debate with him before the General Election, we should have a Clegg – Farage warmup debate this year, ahead of the Euro elections. Even if Miliband and Cameron are not taking part.

    We have to burst his balloon. A Clegg – Farage debate would do the trick I am sure.

  • @Joe King – I too would like Nick to appear in a TV leadership debate with Farage. Farage is like the mouse that roared and Nick would make mincemeat of him. I was thrilled when Nick put one over on Brown and Cameron during the 2010 debates. It was wonderful to see them both showing their admiration for our great leader. “I agree with Nick,” they both respectfully declared. Three political leaders with one mind, so to speak. What better recommendation for liberalism. That’s why I am quite looking forward to Nigel Farage joining the 2015 debate and admitting, “I agree with Nick too”. What an exciting prospect. We must do it. How can we arrange?

  • Paul in Twickenham 9th Jan '14 - 7:55am

    @Chris and @JohnTilley – the poll mentioned in the Radio 4 6 o’clock news was clearly a landslide. The reasons are largely down to the unchallenged hysteria whipped up in sections of the media and by politicians with their own agendas. Being politely apologetic (“but there really are so few of them”) is not good enough. Mr. Farage has gone on record saying that he would take lower GDP growth in preference to permitting more immigration. How does that play with those who want higher living standards? And he has said that he would not try to remove EU nationals who are here already. I suspect that many UKIP supporters want to “send them all back”. A rational debate would expose the inconsistent – indeed incoherent – UKIP messages. But I don’t see how it gets started. And I wonder how effective it would be when many people have such visceral opinions and close their ears to other perspectives.

  • Stuart Bonar 9th Jan '14 - 8:19am

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Michael: You make a reasonable point about overestimating the case against. If we left the EU I am sure the sky wouldn’t fall in, but I do think that we ground our case in facts and research, e.g. that the CBI estimates that households would be £3,000 worse off outside the EU. I also saw something yesterday from the OBR, I think, suggesting the National Debt would double as a share of GDP if we stopped all immigration. Your point is a good one, but I don’t think it’s something we’re doing currently.

    Sue: I too think that any leaders’ debate would have to have Nick in and that he’d perform well. I also suspect that Farage wouldn’t necessarily perform well under pressure and under scrutiny.

    Joe: Sorry, I think we need to challenge what Farage says, and that means articles like this. If you really don’t want to read about him however just replace “Farage” with “UKIP” in what I have written, that’ll probably work.

    Thanks again for all the comments and also for the social media shares.

  • Why are the people likely to vote Lib Dem at the next election even slightly concerned about the kippers? I can’t see that the core voter is likely to switch because of ‘immigration’, so surely the last thing the party needs to do is bother with trying to win an argument with Farage?

    Would it not be better to let the Tories and Labour fight it out – they are likely to loose votes to them and that cant be a disadvantage can it?

  • On a recent “Any Questions” NF challenged Shirley Williams to quantify the number of immigrants to arrive from Romania and Bulgaria on 1 Jan. Sensibly she kept her counsel. Time for a rematch I think. Perhaps the BBC could arrange it.

  • One has to face reality. Nick Clegg in a debate with Farage would not stand a chance, not least because UKIP is against subsidising windmills, whilst Clegg is massively in favour.
    As far as immigration goes there are many things which only the future will reveal, but… At the moment there are many illegal immigrants in Britain, with somewhere around 3/4 million being a supposedly reasonable figure. Whatever the number is, the reason for their being here is clear – they are trying to move from a poorer way of life into a better one. Why then should it be unreasonable to suppose that many might do just that from the poorer countries in the EU?
    The LIb-Dems and their Conservative allies are hemorrhaging supporters, with Lib-Dems down around 35% over the last three years; start looking for the reasons, and address them. It might be worthwhile making a start with students’ tuition fees!

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