Fellow clergy will empathise that it is always on the day off that the ‘interesting’ information reaches you. For me, that dose of said information came when I picked up the junk mail off the mat to find a UKIP flier. As I went to deliver it to recycling I took a cursory glance to see if I could send it back at cost to the party. And that is when I saw the face of a churchgoer from one of my congregations.
Two weeks later, we got the news that UKIP had scored a healthy second in the local election. Around the country I watched UKIP rack up council seats in a lot of areas like mine. Rotherham had a gain of nine seats, and there were large swathes of Essex which have a purple hue.
Many of my friends took the approach in the run up to these elections that is marked by parody and ridicule of UKIP. Its become a social media badge of honour to point out the foibles and failings of any UKIP candidate. And yet, my friends, that hasn’t worked. I’m not sure your smug and snide comments have done anything other than reinforce the very reasons why so many feel so alienated by the mainstream parties.
Lets leave policy aside for a moment. UKIP’s policies are awful and couldn’t probably be implemented. Unworkable policies are not a crime: they have long been the bread and butter of third and forth parties: grit in the oyster of British politics moving the debate on. But in honesty, I’m not sure that it’s all about policy anyway.
It seems to me that the areas where UKIP are thriving are the areas where the gap between the political elite of this nation and the people are furthest apart. My congregant, standing for UKIP, is white, male and working class. I haven’t had the chance to quiz him extensively on his reasons for standing, but I know that it has a significant amount to do with UKIP being accessible. I am not sure that he would even get past a first selection meeting in the Labour Party. Not because he is a bad guy, but because the mainstream parties have either entrenched local elites, or are looking to modernise.
Of course there are arguments for advancing women and minority groups within the political parties, but the working class is a minority group that has been cast aside for too long. My guess is that UKIP is welcoming those politically awakened people who are not getting a look in among the traditional parties. Somewhere down the line we stopped bringing such people in and working together to shape a message for the whole country. We got scared when people didn’t use the right words- and rather than embrace, challenge and grow, we have excluded, ridiculed and parodied.
Moreover, our political elites need to get back in touch with what is actually going on on the ground. Jumping on people with no grace when they announce views which are different, is not just excluding people- its not helping community cohesion. There are millions of people who have yet to be convinced by a vision of multicultural Britain and are not able to talk about it for fear they get the language wrong.
I’m not making comment about race or immigration. I am making comment about disconnection. Large swathes of the UK don’t have a safe space to work out what they think. They have been shut out of the political elites because they can’t pass the media tests. And so we are left with political parties that are dominated by professional political operatives that are based in London. And I’m not sure it takes a political analyst to see that London is not like the rest of the UK.
In a week where its OK for George Osborne to suggest that the North should be almost as ‘one city’ we don’t really need that big a reminder to see how disconnected we have become. I am convinced that reconnecting to the white working class is a challenge that we have to grasp missionally as church leaders, but also politically. It means there needs to be room for horrible conversations where the correct language may not be used, but where trust can be grown.
Some friends of mine in Leeds are involved in a piece of work called Poverty Truth Action. It takes the novel concept of putting rich and poor in the same room and encouraging them to talk as equals. My political friends, we would do well to do the same. The argument can only be won by aggressively reconnecting with the working classes who may call us back to the Gospel principles of hearing and acting on behalf of all the poor.
Jude Smith lives in a North Leeds estate where she enjoys running, reading and being. She is the Church of England Pioneer Vicar in the area.