This is the only time I am going to mention Nigel Farage in this election campaign. And I’m going to do it just to ask you to please stop mentioning him too.
Clearly both Brexit, and the rise of the far right that it has fuelled, are deeply concerning. We are seeing the return of language that I thought was left behind in the days of my childhood, and both women and our diverse communities are feeling fearful. But fear is the currency of the far right and we should be brave enough not to fall into their communication traps.
Labour’s main message now is that only they can stop Farage. The Liberal Democrats are trying to portray themselves as the party that can ‘beat’ the Brexit Party. These narratives are both distortions of what these European Elections are about – electing members of the European Parliament – but they are also ceding ground to Farage in a way that is disastrous for the future of our democracy. Putting Farage at the centre of the debate like this is exactly what he wants.
All the smaller parties have set their own targets for these elections. For most of them maximising seats is important. Not so for Brexit and UKIP, who have never used their seats for the purpose of being political representatives. Their ambition here is to use these elections, as they use all elections, to spread their hateful ideology and to fan the flames of hate and racial and religious conflict. They work together, using a good-cop-bad-cop strategy, where the excesses of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon makes the Faragistas look respectable. So while UKIP candidates are putting out vile videos on YouTube and engaging in street fighting, Brexit candidates can sit in hustings and in studios wearing their suits and making the politics of division look respectable. Just as in the referendum, where Vote Leave and Leave.EU played a similar double-hander, in this campaign Farage can keep just this side of the line of overt racism, knowing that his dog-whistles and the UKIP attack dogs will do the dirty work.
Anything we do to legitimise them or normalise them is an affront to tolerant, democratic politics and an insult to those in our communities who are their targets. Hence my decision not to share a debating space with UKIP candidates. This has meant turning down invitations to hustings. Although I did accept an invitation to be part of a BBC programme that included a video attendance by Carl Benjamin, I was soon aware that this was a mistake. My refusal to respond to him beyond restating my solidarity with the communities against whom he targets hatred still felt like too much of a compromise.
Their strategy works brilliantly on social media, where they can take clips from their TV appearances. To argue, as many media pundits do, that they can ‘beat’ fascists and their fellow travellers in rational debate is to entirely miss the point. The pundits’ incisive intellectual parries will be left out of the version of the video their opponent shares with loyal followers. The TV studio will build the authority of interviewee, an authority he will use like oxygen to stoke the fires of hate. And every time we share pictures of Farage with a red cross through his face, or attack him, or respond to one of his trolls, we are helping this dangerous communications machine.
In this sense, Farage has already won the European Elections because he has been allowed to portray himself as the most powerful man in British politics. He has made a claim on a seat at the table for the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, using votes for a single issue to enhance his personal power and thus undercutting democratic processes. The way the EU referendum facilitated this creation of a single-issue division in our politics is why Farage and his acolytes sat in the European group for ‘direct democracy’ and it is also why the German constitution strictly controls the use of referenda which helped the rise of the Nazis.
It’s probably my experience of working with UKIP politicians in the European Parliament that makes me sensitive to their methods and the way you can get sucked into unwittingly fuelling their political project. To avoid doing so requires self-awareness and discipline. It means keeping your understanding that politics is complex and relies on choice between a number of parties and vision. It means sticking to your own narrative of hope and a positive vision of the future.
The ideologues of the far right are on the rise in Britain and they are playing us all. Please think carefully about social media hygiene and stop your own collusion. Don’t share pictures of them. Don’t engage with their trolls. Don’t feed the beast.