Ukip's topping of the European elections, the first time any other party than Labour or the Conservatives have won a national election in over a hundred years, has brought the dilemma facing the established parties into sharp focus.
Ukip's popularity is largely based on it's anti-immigration, anti-EU stance; but more than that, for its supporters it stands for a straightforward honesty talking about issues that have become closed-off by the political establishment.
"A Frankenstein's monster"
An interview with one of the original founders of Ukip, respected academic Alan Sked, revealed much about how Ukip's message has changed (for the worse?) over the years, as well as the accusation that Ukip had become a vehicle for Nigel Farage's omnipresent (and multi-faceted) personality.
Reading the interview inadvertently brings comparisons with past political entities becoming hijacked by hypnotic and overbearing personalities; while it's an unfair comparison, it bears considering that the likes of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin were all people who were marginal figures who took over the reins of their respective parties through a combination of charisma and ruthless opportunism (the "Anton Drexler" comparison with Alan Sked here seems too tempting not to mention, even if it is unfair on Sked). The various nationalist groups that are gaining momentum in Europe (more on that later) all have at least some kind of tenuous link to the politics of Fascism and extremism.
Farage has long been aware of the accusation of Ukip being a one-man band; it's for this reason why he has promoted (to varying degrees of "success", depending on how you measure the term) other faces to the media. With Ukip now having hundreds of councellors across England, and two dozen MEPs, it gives plenty of space for this multitude of individuals to make a name for themselves. As has been evident for some time, Ukip candidates are not shy about plainly (and sometimes bluntly) speaking their minds.
But this is the point; for the British electorate (at least those that vote Ukip) this "speaking your mind" is something of a novelty; but a novelty that a significant section of the electorate are happy to indulge. In a sense, Ukip has become the perfect pressure valve for people who have grown tired of the "PC straight-jacket", and tired of being called racists for wanting to talk about immigration and the EU. These people want to have MPs that speak like they do in Westminster.
Ukip is no mere "protest vote". The evidence is that Ukip will be around for quite some time. The tectonic plates are shifting beneath the feet of the MPs in Westminster.
A dinosaurs' graveyard
While Ukip is on the rise, the MPs in Westminster are scrabbling around to play catch-up (at least, the ones who are not in complete self-denial).
But those MPs in the Westminster are in a "damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't" situation. The three main parties have both tried to indulge the immigration worries raised by Ukip's popularity, as well as dismissing or attacking those selfsame worries as misguided and delusional. Judging from the local council results, the ones who are really delusional about British people's worries are those in Westminster; for they think that everyone in Britain thinks the same as people who live in London.
But the Westminster "catch-up game" is doomed to fail, because what characterises the typical Ukip voter is their disregard for whatever comes out of a Westminster politicians' mouth. David Cameron is perhaps a bigger hate figure than even Ed Milliband (only Nick Clegg is despised more). The main reason for this is Cameron's track record of saying whatever is convenient at that moment, and conveniently come up with an excuse to forget it later on. In this sense, he is the epitome of the abject failure of Westminster politics to bring forward genuinely passionate people who have a real idea about how to take the country forward. David Cameron is the archetypal "career politician" of Britain in the early 21st century. Worse, as the "heir to Blair", he took Blair's "managerial" style of politics, and applied it in a even more superficial and misguided way to the Conservative party.
In many ways, David Cameron has done more to destroy the Conservative Party than Tony Blair could have wished for; worse, is the damage he has done to his standing as the leader of his party and his country. The Conservatives are now a cosmetic and hollow entity for Cameron's vacuous personality. It's clear that many Conservatives are "Ukip-lite", who would secretly wish to defect to Ukip if they felt it was worth their while. Well, after the 2015 election, it may well be.
The current generation of Westminster politicians are like a set of skilled workers that have grown complacent over the years and haven't bothered to "re-learn" new skills needed, and are now hopelessly behind the curve with passing events and advances.
Ironically, in this sense only, they do reflect some of the changes that have happened to many workers in Britain in the last thirty years: left behind by globalisation because the government never bothered to invest in their skills when the time was right. Like these "left-behind" in society who are now drawn to Ukip, those in Westminster may soon be as unemployed and socially-dislocated as some Ukip voters are now.
Revenge can be poetic indeed.
A "French Ukip" or a "British FN"?
The stand-out event of the European elections has been the simultaneous rise of Ukip in the UK and the FN in France, as the largest parties in their respective countries. This in itself should surely send a terrifying message to those in Brussels; when the second and third largest countries in the EU are dominated by anti-EU parties, something is very wrong.
The rise of the far-right and the anti-politics movement has been brewing for some time; the financial crisis demonstrated the intellectual poverty and the particularly complacent and weak quality of those currently in the European political establishment, who have resorted to negative tactics to smear those who refuse to accept the political orthodoxy. UKIP, the FN in France, and others, are the beneficiaries of this set of circumstances. This was also true of politics in Europe after the Great Depression.
Nigel Farage refuses to do any "deal" with Marine Le Pen. The main reason here, Farage likes to point out, is that Ukip are not an openly-racist (and anti-Semitic) party.
On the surface, Farage speaks the truth: Ukip have more in common with the "Tea Party" in the USA than the old-style FN in France. What separates Ukip and the FN is that Ukip are primarily a movement driven by economic arguments to their case; the FN will as likely use social and cultural (i.e. racial) arguments to back up their case. Ukip's economic argument is what drives its opposition to an open labour market with the EU; it is this, as well as its libertarian principles that make it more like the "Tea Party" in the USA than the FN, or "Golden Dawn" in Greece.
And yet for all that, under the surface, racism and prejudice is apparent. Speak to some of Ukip's candidates, and it doesn't take long for open prejudice to emerge, whether it be racism or homophobia. In that sense, Farage is simply a charismatic front-man for a deep well of latent prejudice. It could all be harmless banter; or it could be the tip of a very unpleasant iceberg.
But, who knows for sure? Only time will tell.