Nigel Farage, pint in hand. Flickr/dominicponsford. Some rights reserved.
‘Election 2015: support for Ukip among Gen Y voters doubles in a year: Think younger voters don’t like Nigel Farage? Think again’. If, as many people do, you failed to read beyond the headline and sub-headline of this Guardian article, you would be forgiven to think that a majority of young people vote UKIP, or at the very least that they would take a consequent share of the vote. You would also be forgiven to think that UKIP is the party rising most within Gen Y voters.
Yet if your patience extends to the third paragraph, you will find out that UKIP doubling their support within Gen Y means that the party could increase its share of the vote from 2.4% to 5.5% - hardly worthy of a headline, let alone one suggesting that the young are flogging to UKIP.
In the fifth paragraph, you would find that actually the poll doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know as ‘Ukip still gains most of its strength from the “grey vote”’. Scroll down another paragraph and you find out that the Greens are also doubling their prospective results, but to 6.9% showing clearly the double standards most of our mainstream media applies when talking about the Greens and UKIP. The article also ignores that young people are the most likely to abstain, thus skewing results dramatically.
This is only one example in a myriad of articles and comments which have helped make UKIP a lot bigger than it really is in the recent past. While such skewed coverage of Nigel Farage’s party is common in the media, it has also been increasingly pushed into the mainstream public discourse by some politicians, expert commentators and academics. This is not limited to the UK either and similar trends are taking place in France for example with regards to the Front National, and particularly the misuse of polls in creating sensationalist journalism.
In the past few years, much of the coverage and analysis of parties such as UKIP or the Front National has been skewed and hyped, compared to their electoral performance. This was particularly striking in the lead-up and aftermath of the 2014 EU elections, where UKIP won the largest share of the vote.
The verdict was clear for the Guardian: ‘Ukip wins European elections with ease to set off political earthquake’. This analysis of the results suggested that UKIP had become a serious contender in the struggle for power in the UK: ‘The main parties moved on Sunday to show they regarded the Ukip threat as serious’. Of course, the results obtain by UKIP are concerning and must be taken seriously, but rather than the disease itself, the rise of UKIP is but a symptom of the current state of our political system.
Focusing only on UKIP diverts our attention from what really is at stake here. Even though this highlighted a more worrying trend, nowhere in the article was the level of participation discussed to put UKIP’s results in perspective. UKIP did indeed receive 26.77% of the vote. This led to headlines such as ‘Ukip storms European elections’, ‘Ukip Wins European Elections And Hits Westminster With Political 'Earthquake'’ and ‘UKIP cleans up in European election’. Imagine: 1 OUT OF 4 VOTERS TURN TO UKIP! However, taking into account the traditionally dismal levels of participation in European elections, UKIP actually only attracted 7.5% of all registered voters in the UK. But a headline such as ‘LESS THAN ONE OUT OF TEN VOTERS VOTE UKIP BUT THEY STILL WIN, WHAT DOES THAT SAY ABOUT OUR DEMOCRACY?’ is clearly a lot less appealing.
This selective use of poll results in the legitimisation of parties is not limited to electoral predictions. The focus on certain issues has had a dramatic effect on the public discourse in recent years. For example, immigration is often argued to be one of the most important issues for people in the UK. However, here again, polls can be made to say very different things, and the way the results enter public discourse can have a serious impact onto what is perceived subsequently. In the December 2014 results of the Eurobarometer, when asked ‘what do you think are the two most important issues facing the UK at the moment’, ‘immigration’ ranked first with 38%.
However, when asked ‘And personally, what are the two most important issues you are facing at the moment?’, ‘immigration’ fell to 9% and was preceded by ‘Rising prices’ (35%), ‘Health and social security’ (17%), ‘The financial situation of your household’ (16%), Unemployment (13%), ‘Pensions’ (13%), ‘The education system’ (12%), ‘The economic situation’ (10%) and ‘Housing’ (10%). In fact, only ‘The environment, climate and energy issues’ (7%), ‘Terrorism’ (4%), ‘Taxation’ (8%) and ‘Crime’ (5%) rated worse.
This is illuminating as it points to a discrepancy between people’s perception of what is an issue at the national level and in their day to day lives. While immigrants, as a mass whose fuzzy shape is created by public discourse, appear a threat, they become remote to common concerns at the personal level, where they usually take form and gain humanity: the immigrant is no longer an inhuman crowd, it is one’s neighbour. Again, this does not mean that racism and xenophobia are not rife at the personal level, but it simply puts in a much needed perspective.
The role of public discourse in shaping public perception is nothing new and has been studied in various disciplines for decades now. Of course, politicians, the media and academics will not convince us that immigration is a threat and that UKIP is the answer by simply saying it.
Agency remains key to making such decisions and there is no magic bullet; this is partly why 9 out of 10 voters decide not to vote UKIP. However, the repetition of certain ideas will have an impact on our perception of what matters: They will not tell us what to think, but what to think about. This can have a dramatic effect at the ballot box in particular, when key issues on which a vote is based may no longer be those experienced in reality, but instead those falsely portrayed as crucial.
This in turn has some major consequences in our democratic debate through a process of legitimisation and delegitimisation. First, it legitimises parties like UKIP as they appear (wrongly) to be serious contenders for power, despite a vast majority not turning to them, and in fact often opposing them virulently.
Second and perhaps more importantly, it legitimises certain ideas and discourses and makes them acceptable or even unavoidable in political campaigning. Immigration and Islam are two cases in point when issues much more pressing such as pensions, education, climate change and so on are relegated to second order issues. This is turn frees racist and xenophobic speech as it increasingly becomes normalised.
Finally, this lead to a process of delegitimisation of the ‘people’. While mainstream politicians will move rightward in an attempt to follow this false trend, the mainstream discourse will demonise such parties and their voters as irrational, unreasonable voters, thus reinforcing the idea that politics is best left to the elite and experts. At the same, crucial issues inherent to the system will be left unchallenged and undiscussed, reinforcing further the disillusion and distrust that most of us have in the workings of democracy and our political parties.