Although Nicola Sturgeon was the clear winner from last night's television debate, Nigel Farage came a close second in the polls. Even so, UKIP's poll rating was nudged slightly downward, by two points. I think this is because Farage spent his performance rallying the troops. It was not just the cynical use of a canard about immigrants with HIV that suggested this, but the exaggeration of the best/worst aspects of his presentation - the sweaty, contorted face and jerky, staccato movements, which magnificently embody the irritation and resentment of his base, but would be off-putting to many others.
Parenthetically, UKIP's press spokesperson, the oleaginous Patrick O'Flynn (formerly one of the Daily Express sniffer dogs), is selling this as a deliberate strategy. Even if that's true, it was a big and obvious mistake for Farage to use his primetime big debate slot to harden up his core vote. There are plenty of opportunities to do that, and he would have been smarter to elaborate a message targeted at the fairly sizeable swathe of people who would consider voting UKIP but currently aren't going to do so. Still, if UKIP wants to brag about this strategy, let's look at how it works.
Farage claimed that 60% of new HIV diagnoses in the UK each year are made up of immigrants, which he claimed meant the NHS splashing out with £25,000 of free drugs for foreigners each year. Briefly, this was a lie and, what is more, a lie that was started by the BNP with explicit reference to 'Africans' and cleaned up for presentation by Farage. Of course it was. Almost everyone watching knew it to be such, or at least suspected it. Such figures coming from a party that habitually lies in order to arouse bigotry against immigrants are necessarily suspect. That is one reason why Leanne Wood denounced him over the line, and why she gained applause for doing so.
But why, if it's so easy to catch UKIP out in a lie, do they persist with the strategy? And why doesn't it hurt them? They are supposed to be the 'honest brokers' standing against the dissimulating Westminster elite, but constantly perjure themselves in the court of public opinion. And yet there is no evidence that it has done anything but good for their poll ratings. Part of the problem is that our media has no interested in tracking these lies or researching them. By and large it falls to bloggers or marginal commentators to point them out. But more important is what I said before:
"UKIP are good at the numbers game, precisely because they understand that it is a purely rhetorical exercise. The right figure is that which a) efficiently demonstrates a point, b) tells people what they expect to hear and confirms their 'worst fears' (even if they derive an obscure pleasure from it), and yet which is c) time- and effort-consuming to track down and rebut. The right figure is just an element of a morality fable."
This is the problem. There is no way that one can be prepared for every ingenious falsehood these scheming chancers might dream up - but it wouldn't matter much if the basic moral precepts underpinning the lie were not shared across the parliamentary-media spectrum. When Farage sputtered, "we have to put our own people first!", the basic picture - that 'our own people' are white people who happen to have been born here, irrespective of who works, pays taxes or has citizenship, and that racial others are coming here and exploiting us - is omnipresent in the media, and in the briefings of the dominant parties. Such 'politically incorrect' truths are espoused not just by obvious fascists or reactionaries, but by the likes of the New Labour drudge Trevor Phillips. Farageism emerges as some sort of petty-minded, chauvinist rebellion against the 'politically correct' establishment ("politicians and their mates in the media" etc), but it is a pure product of that establishment.