The real X-factor

August 6, 2004

How were millions of Britons persuaded to vote for the UKIP in the European elections? It certainly wasn't thanks to a couple of minor celebrities, argues Alan Sked.

The UK Independence Party's recent success in the European elections has caused astonishment in some quarters. Some commentators have even ascribed the election result entirely to the intervention of "minor personalities", meaning that the adoption of Robert Kilroy-Silk as a candidate plus a 20-minute press conference in support of the party by an elderly Joan Collins somehow made millions support the cause of independence from Europe.

But while the minor celebrities certainly played their part, as did Max Clifford, had they been standing for, or speaking out in favour of, the Monster Raving Loony Party, (many of whose members have strikingly more sympathetic personalities and far higher IQs than UKIP MEPs), the result would have been very different.

The truth is that a huge amount of people in this country - probably the majority - bitterly resent the fact that between 50 per cent (Cabinet Office figure) and 70 per cent (Liberal Democrat figure) of Westminster legislation originates in Europe. They also resent the net cost to this country of membership of the European Union (£100 billion a year - more than the National Health Service, according to think-tank Politea) at a time when, according to the Independent , only 10 per cent of our gross national product is involved in trade with the EU.

That is why so many people voted UKIP at the Euro elections. That is why the notoriously Europhile Liberal Democrats were beaten into fourth place.

Does anyone really think that, had the dour Charles Kennedy been accompanied around Britain by Rory Bremner, Dame Judi Dench and Jude Law, it would have made the electorate climb aboard? Of course not.

So what really happened? The real problem was the lack of any story. The Government, having arranged for the Euro election to take place on the same day as local elections, then decided not to campaign on the issue of Europe. The other major parties followed Labour's lead. What was Kennedy to do? Campaign on a "Vote more powers to Brussels" slogan? Hardly likely.

What was Michael Howard to do? Campaign on a "Stay in a Europe we Tories don't really like any more" slogan? Again, hardly likely. What was the Government to do? Campaign on a "We've just signed up for another load of red tape you won't like" slogan.

By now you must be getting the point. The major parties hoped that the Euro elections would be ignored. UKIP by this stage wasn't doing anything. But Kilroy-Silk, who had just been sacked from his media jobs, became available at just the right time. And he was able to persuade Collins to appear on the party's behalf. In fact, Collins looked terrible; she also admitted to being politically naive, living in the US and being unable to vote for anybody here. But Kilroy, who came in for really bad publicity from the Daily Mail , somehow managed to take over the whole UKIP publicity machine with the help of the well-paid Clifford (who, by the way, votes Labour).

This minor story then allowed the press to give full rein to the UKIP saga at the Euro election. It was quite pathetic really: totally uncritical, absolutely oblivious of the dreadful record of the three UKIP MEPs who had already disgraced themselves at Strasbourg, and uninterested even in the racist side to UKIP's recent record. Despite a few articles, the press as a whole was on a pro-UKIP roll. Why? Not because of minor personalities, but in the words of one young Times journalist: "Alan, they are the story." He meant, that, given the strategies of the major parties, they were the only story.

Journalists are as lazy as the rest of us. When they are not given stories on a plate, they don't go in for real research, they simply go for the next best thing - in this case, UKIP.

But let us look at the role of minor personalities in some more detail. A number of things must be remembered. For a start, to be any kind of "personality" at all, you have to have done something publicly - acted, sung, made jokes, appeared on some TV programme. Chances are that half the people who have watched you won't like you. So not all publicity will be good publicity for the party you support. The press, too, may not wish to give you any more publicity - especially political publicity. (Would anyone be converted by the political views of a former Spice Girl?) Media interest cannot be taken for granted. What counts is whether you are the mood of the moment, as Kilroy-Silk was after his misadventures in media-land - never underestimate the narcissism of the press - and whether the cause you are promoting is useful (UKIP was, given the need for a Euro-election story).

Personalities do not manipulate the media; the media manipulate personalities. No doubt there are a few big names that can twist the media around their little fingers - Diana, Princess of Wales comes to mind - but even they play with fire. The same will be true of UKIP, I predict. What the media built up, it can tear down. Now the Euro election is over, journalists will see their story as properly investigating UKIP's hapless MEPs. What fun that will be.

Alan Sked founded UKIP in the early 1990s and is a senior lecturer in international history at the London School of Economics.

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