By sheer coincidence, I was in a position to talk to some UKIP activists yesterday, as the Godfrey Bloom ‘bongo-bongo’ story developed. I mention this, because a consistent issue for the party (and others) is the charge of media bias (or here, for (lots) more). ‘Let’s get it straight from the horse’s mouth’, was my thinking as I went off.
The story itself is nothing particular (as Michael White astutely noted), in that Bloom has extensive form in this sort of thing. The main complication was that the EFD group in the European Parliament (chaired by Nigel Farage) had ejected the Lega Nord’s Mario Borghezio in June for comments that had gone a bit further than Bloom’s did, by being specifically directed at an individual.
The EFD is not a tight-knit group at all, and taking a stand on Borghezio was relatively low-cost, especially in the content of the coming elections next May: the EFD will doubtless reshape itself then, especially if accommodations with the conservative ECR can be found, and UKIP are likely to remain a large group of MEPs, so can dictate matters.
By contrast, there was no such talk yesterday about ‘Godders.’ Certainly, the party leadership pushed for an apology to be made (especially after Bloom’s further deepening of the hole on the Today programme), but equally clearly it was willing to take his ‘reject’ as that apology. To look at the UKIP website today, you’ll see it all described as ‘comments’ and ‘starting a debate.’
The view with the activists I met was mainly one of ‘tsk, that’s Godders for you: he is a one and he does have a mind of his own’ (NB I’m paraphrasing here). It would have been better if he’d not said it (especially when being filmed), but – in essence – what can you do?
Bloom has good stock with UKIP: he is seen as committed, involved and generally good value. His business background and good contacts have also proved useful on occasions. To lose him would be a significant blow to the party.
This all matters to a party that is trying to break into the mainstream of British politics. Resource is being put into better vetting of candidates, and there will be national selection by party members of individuals for the EP lists, to try and minimise gaming by regional organisers.
However, the whole episode is telling. Given that scrutiny is now to be expected, how did this all come about. Two options present themselves.
Firstly, Bloom has been told to be more discrete in public, but has gone against that. In this case, it highlights the difficulties the party has (and will have) in managing its public profile and coherence. Given UKIP’s past form on internal arguments and ruptures, that would not be a pretty sight.
Secondly, Bloom has been given latitude to speak as he finds. Given that this is a way beyond the dog-whistling, ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking‘ of the Tories, some would (and have) argued this is racism tout court. Bloom’s own observation that this will actually raise his profile and his vote suggests that this might be closer to the truth, as does the absence of any suggestion that such views should not only be not expressed but also not held.
Quite what that tells us about the ideological hinterlands of key figures in UKIP, I leave to discussion.
Dr Simon Usherwood is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Politics, University of Surrey.