Tony Abbott and the Federal Coalition are "so hot right now"; according to the weekend’s Galaxy poll, the Coalition now commands a crushing lead — 55-45 per cent on a two-party preferred basis.
What hasn’t been reported in Australia is that his ideological counterpart in the UK is also currently the political flavour of the month, having led his party into second place in the Eastleigh by-election against the odds, pulling an impressive 27.8 per cent of the vote. No, I’m not talking about the Tory Prime Minister David Cameron — whose candidate finished third in Eastleigh and who has had a patchy few weeks courtesy of Moody’s. The new kid on the block is the UK Independence Party’s enterprising and polarising leader, Nigel Farage.
In recent years, Farage, like Abbott, has executed the fundamentals of his brief as "anti-establishment spoiler" to perfection, carving out a niche for UKIP in some of the politically incorrect spaces left unoccupied by Labour and the Conservatives. Farage’s background is essentially conservative, both in terms of social policy and economics; he was an active Conservative Party member from his teenage years until 1992, when he resigned from the party in disgust. The following year he helped to found UKIP. In 1999 he was elected to the European Parliament in an ironic paid engagement with the very bureaucracy he rails against.
Although UKIP’s raison d’être remains its opposition to the UK’s involvement with the European Union and its Brussels-based mandarins, the party’s focus has slowly broadened as it seeks to engage voters outside England’s big metropolitan centres. David Cameron’s Conservative party has tacked to the left on Europe, as well as social issues including gay marriage, the environment, and this has suited UKIP, as Farage himself bluntly spelled out after the Eastleigh campaign:
"The Conservatives failed here because traditional Tory voters look at Cameron and they ask themselves ‘Is he a Conservative?’ and they conclude ‘No, he’s not’ … He’s talking about gay marriage, wind turbines, unlimited immigration from India. He wants Turkey to join the European Union."
When Farage offers sound-bites like that, dyed-in-the-wool Conservative voters clearly have a reason to view UKIP as a worthier, feistier brother of their traditional party, one unwilling to indulge in political correctness or pander to inner-city media and establishment elites.
There is also a sense that UKIP’s offering has the capacity to glue disparate groups of voters together from across the political spectrum. On Europe, Farage has a powerful card to play with for working class voters: the expansion of the EU has resulted in a massive influx of migrants from the continent, particularly from the poorer countries of Eastern Europe. In a flatlining economy, with competition for jobs ruthlessly fierce and recent migrants usually willing to work harder than locals for less, should we really be surprised at the rise of UKIP as a serious political force?
With the shock emergence in recent weeks of Polish as England’s second most-spoken language — ahead of Welsh — Farage has found himself at the centre of a powerfully uplifting storm, and is exploiting it skilfully and ruthlessly.
In place of Farage and UKIP’s hue and cry of "stop the Poles", Australians reflexively hear "stop the boats"; the parallels with Abbott’s performance as Opposition Leader since the last election are countless. Both leaders love a kooky media stunt — witness Farage’s election day flight of near-doom in 2010 or Abbott’s embrace of the anti-politician rage of the Convoy of No Confidence.
Abbott, of course, is the leader who famously proclaimed that climate change was "absolute crap", to the delight of many punters but to the overwhelming disgust of the mainstream media and political establishment. He is the leader who refuses to canvass even a mildly progressive stance on gay marriage, even though his sister is gay and has tried to convince him of its merit. He is a man who knows his audience well, and together they represent a mass of people who are angry, tired and fed-up with Canberra, Macquarie Street, Spring Street, and the rest of them.
For Farage, certainly there is little danger of UKIP ever gaining quite enough support to put its policies into practice. Abbott doesn’t have that luxury; concerns about his ability to make the transition from bellicose attack dog to receptive and stable prime minister are real, and have informed a series of image-softening interviews, culminating in a puffy 60 Minutes bit over the weekend.
Although his politics look more like Farage’s, the possibility of governing means Abbott has to make the same compromises as Cameron, although perhaps without the same political risk — it’s unlikely that the Coalition will be outflanked on the right by new entrants like Danny Nalliah’s Rise Up Australia Party or Bob Katter’s Australian Party. The right might thrive on the hatred of their political enemies, but government can’t be powered by hate alone.
What is clear is that Abbott and Farage represent a mass of people who are angry, tired and fed-up. They want their country back, and in tough, plain speaking, rambunctious men like Tony Abbott and Nigel Farage, they see true patriots; themselves made good. Isn’t that what democracy is all about?
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