Once again, UKIP have been in the news over controversial comments made by one of their candidates. Kerry Smith was recorded describing gay people as “fucking disgusting old poofters” and referring to a woman with a Chinese name as “chinky”. Despite Smith being relieved of his position as a candidate, Nigel Farage still felt able to say he felt “sorry” for him, even going as far as to defend the use of the word “chinky”. The media responded with predictable uproar. But stories like this have made no difference to UKIP’s popularity in the past, and quite possibly never will in the future. To understand why, let us look at the three different types of UKIP racism scandals.
1: The Lenny Henry
Probably the most common UKIP race row – certainly the media’s favourite – is when an unhinged UKIP loony says something really quite appalling. Most famous of these was William Henwood, a local UKIP council candidate who tweeted that comedian Lenny Henry should emigrate to a “black country”. These stories provide clear evidence of an indisputably racist remark which the UKIP leadership agrees is unacceptable. The party, in these cases, acts swiftly to remove the previously unheard-of perpetrator from whatever junior position they held. The newspaper gets a great headline and a minor scalp.
Yet the ‘Lenny Henry’ has no tangible long-term effect. Every party has its non-entity nutters. Some Labour candidates are paedophiles, some Tory councillors are violent criminals, some Lib Dems are even terrorists. If these are people who no one has heard of, who did not hold positions of any importance, who are quickly ejected, it is difficult to reasonably argue they reflect the views of the party as a whole. UKIP has had quite a few loonies exposed as blatant racists, but if they are minor characters and dealt with appropriately, these stories have no effect in the long run.
2: The Nazi Pot Plant
Not as common, though more significant, are the stories for which there is no irrefutable evidence of something downright awful having been said. A good example is Alex Wood, a 22 year old UKIP candidate seemingly exposed making a Nazi salute on camera. Scenting blood, the press hit him hard. Yet, despite the dubious photo, in this case the evidence was not as clear cut as first thought. Wood comically insisted he was merely reaching out to stop his girlfriend taking photos of him imitating a pot plant. Farage agreed he had been “unfairly traduced” by the press, insisting “he has been very unfairly treated”.
These types of race row do not hurt UKIP, indeed they may bolster the party’s support. UKIP voters and those who might consider voting for UKIP are very keen on freedom of speech and not so keen on political correctness. Stories where it appears the ‘racist’ might not actually be a racist after all contribute to UKIP’s siege mentality; the belief that everyone in the media and ‘the establishment’ is out to get them. Cases where the allegation is not proven beyond all doubt, where UKIP stands by their man, actually help to convince undecided voters that the party is being unfairly treated. A suspicious pot plant salute can turn into a vote winner.
3: The game-changer
The third type of UKIP scandal is the only one which will have a seriously negative effect on the party, and it hasn’t happened yet. No potential UKIP voter really cares if a loony Kipper with 20 Twitter followers says something terrible. Equally, no potential UKIP voter concerned about political correctness will reject the party over a story where there is some ambiguity. The only thing that would make a significant difference would be if a really senior figure – one of the leading five or six people in the party – said or did something truly shocking. An overtly racist comment from one of UKIP’s TV stars would be a game-changer. Until that happens, the rest is largely irrelevant.