Friday, 20 March 2015

A bunch of amateurs

Another week, another UKIP scandal. This time it involves Janice Atkinson, an MEP and prospective parliamentary candidate for Folkestone and Hythe. She was previously in the news last September, for referring to a consituent of Thai background as a "ting tong". Now her chief of staff, Christine Hewitt, appears to have been recorded attempting to fiddle her boss' expense claims as an MEP.

Janice Atkinson. Source: BBC News

The sheer audacity of Hewitt's claimed justification is impressive:

In the footage, she appears to ask for an invoice for a much higher sum than the bill she had originally received. 
Ms Hewitt is heard to say: "The idea is we overcharge them slightly, because that's the way we repatriate it."

In other words, she seeks to overcharge the taxpayers of the European Union, to "repatriate" some of the funds which the UK contributes to the EU. This is meant to be a noble ideological cause. If reports are accurate, Hewitt is fighting the good fight on behalf of Atkinson and the British public, one phony expenses claim at a time.

The UK's net contribution to the EU budget was £8,624 million in 2013, so I don't think a few thousand pounds will make any substantive difference. On the other hand, they would be quite significant for Hewitt, Atkinson or whoever else was the final recipient of the money.


By way of an analogy, the Conservative Party has long been in favour of reducing taxes. Suppose that in the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal, a Conservative MP said his taxes under the Labour government were too high anyway, and he was merely reclaiming money which was his by right. The scorn heaped upon him would be overwhelming, from all regions of the political spectrum.

UKIP's claims to be an anti-establishment party look rather threadbare. This scandal is strongly reminiscent of the existing political establishment. It may damage them more than their general stench of racism and bigotry, because it makes them look like they're just in it for the money.

"They're a bunch of f***king amateurs!"  
--- Walter Sobchak, "The Big Lebowski" (1998)


The level of incompetence on display is remarkable. Less than fifty days from a general election, UKIP have allowed themselves to fall into this scandal. Atkinson is not some obscure figure selected to fight an unwinnable seat. She is one of UKIP's 24 MEPs. Her prospective Westminster seat of Folkestone and Hythe is winnable for UKIP; Ladbrokes gives them odds of 7/2.

(Incidentally, some of UKIP's real fringe candidates qualify as swivel-eyed loons by any reasonable standard, unless one considers that an insult to waterfowl.)

Here we have a high-profile representative of UKIP, whose chief of staff is alleged to have committed fraud. If the allegations are correct, then either Atkinson herself is complicit, in which case she should face criminal charges; or she was too useless to recruit a reliable chief of staff, or be aware of what Hewitt was up to.

This feeds into a general impression of incompetence surrounding UKIP. Again and again, its members have been caught making racist and bigoted remarks which are unacceptable from any modern politician; but it seems they just can't help themselves. Their 2010 manifesto and other policy documents are incoherent, absurd or both.

So far, this has not particularly harmed UKIP, because they are a protest party which is not expected to take on the responsibilities of government. If they become more successful, it is possible they will suffer from the additional scrutiny.

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, it reminds me of the Scottish Socialist Party. Like UKIP, the SSP started off as something of a one-man band. Its leader, Tommy Sheridan, was an able campaigner and media performer, and undoubtedly committed to his cause. In the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections, the SSP benefited from discontent with the Iraq war and the Labour government more generally, and suddenly found themselves with five additional MSPs in the 120-seat Parliament.

Tommy Sheridan.
Source: Socialist Party ScotlandNot to be confused with
the Scottish Socialist Party, or the People's Judean Front.


This almost immediately proved a disaster for the SSP. Their MSPs may have held high principles, but when it came to getting things done they were distinctly amateurish. They were best known for juvenile stunts which sometimes had them ejected from the Holyrood debating chamber. Within two years, the party was consumed by internal conflict and Sheridan was forced to resign as leader. The party was duly punished by the voters in the 2007 election, losing all of its seats.

Ladbrokes predicts UKIP can win at least seven seats in May. It is possible that a victorious UKIP will crash and burn as the SSP did; but they have the potential to do a great deal of damage in the meantime. This is not so much through their direct power, as by the influence they exert on our political discourse. We already have the depressing spectacle of the Conservatives and Labour trying to outdo one another in being "tough on immigration", as an attempt to pander to possible UKIP voters.

If Farage does lead a crew of half a dozen or more MPs to Westminster, they might at least contribute some entertaining scandals and ineptitude.



Update 20-03-2015 18:45: It's hard to stay on top of the UKIP shambles. Only a day after the Atkinson story broke, UKIP has lost two more prospective parliamentary candidates. Stephen Howd in Scunthorpe was suspended over allegations of harassment; and Jonathan Stanley in Westmorland and Lonsdale has resigned, referring to his former party as "sectarian, racist filth". It's just another week in Farage's merry kingdom.

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