One of the few blessings that I have acquired in a lifetime of political interest and involvement is an exceptional long-term memory. No matter that I am more than capable of venturing out into the rain having forgotten to put my shoes on, I can nonetheless still recall verbatim particular conversations that I had with particular people in particular situations in days when we all watched TV in black and white.
I was only a boy of fifteen when I joined the National Front back in 1977, but I do remember the buzz of excitement and expectation that existed around the party at that time. Although at its heart it was an anti-democratic party the NF was committed at the time to following the electoral road to power, which after all its Austrian mentor had himself trodden successfully. Ever-increasing returns from elections, local and national, seemed to confirm that the party was on its way. There was no need to shun democracy for as long as it seemed to be working in one's favour.
GREATER LONDON COUNCIL ELECTIONS
It seems incredible to reflect that even in its halcyon days of the 1970s the National Front never won a single seat on a single local council. It came exceptionally close, capturing more than 30% of the vote in several wards in its East London and other heartlands. In the Greater London Council elections of 1977 it won 119,000 votes in the capital, and a local election in Deptford saw a combined vote of 44.5% for the NF and National Party (an NF splinter group), against 43% for the victorious Labour candidate. The NP won two local council seats in Blackburn. At its absolute peak, NF membership was nudging 20,000.
The reasons why the NF never made the breakthrough to actual electoral success are manifold. The party's electoral strategy was, to begin with, designed with rapid national success firmly in mind. Subconsciously party managers were only too well aware that the whole edifice was constructed on sand. Living a lie by presenting itself as a democratic patriotic party when at its core its philosophy was national socialist it could have been forgiven for fearing that a period of "middle management" which would have exposed it to the daylight may actually have been detrimental to the realisation of its long term aims. Particularly as most of its candidates would have made noticeably poor councillors.
Secondly the party system was less fluid than it is today. With a significantly higher percentage of voters still committed to one or other of the big mainstream parties, often still according to class background or loyalties, and generally better turnouts, the prospects for an outsider party to launch a successful assault even at local council level were less promising.
Thirdly, and associated with the previous point, there was already an aura of "bad news" developing around the NF. Its opponents relentlessly opposed it as a nazi party through publicity campaigns, demonstrations, media coverage and youth culture and, whilst the Front had constructed an elaborate defence strategy to try to minimise the effect of such attacks, that strategy was somewhat compromised by the fact that, in essence, the allegations were true.
AGE OF THATCHERISM
When the general election of 1979 took place all of these facts eventually conspired to deliver the National Front a hammer blow from which it never recovered. An unwitting pincer movement by the combined forces of the anti-racist left and a dynamic new Conservative Party leadership drew the large majority of the NF's erstwhile voters away, and the age of Thatcherism began in earnest.
What comparisons can be made between the NF's adventure in the mid to late 1970s and that currently being enjoyed by Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party?
At every level UKIP has exceeded anything the NF ever achieved even at its peak. It has a number of councillors. Recently it won its first ever parliamentary election, by a landslide, and is anticipating another as I write. At this year's elections to the European Parliament UKIP won more votes, and returned more MEPs, than any of the establishment parties.
Whilst it is important to acknowledge that, unlike the NF of yesteryear, UKIP is not an extremist party with an underlying anti-democratic agenda, many of those who follow it are of a similar ilk to those I used to share meetings with back in those far-off days. Old reactionaries, averse to Johnny Foreigner and bemoaning the loss of Empire, are not a great deal different today to what they were four decades ago. For the NF they were padding, a useful veneer with which to mask a much nastier and more sinister reality. In UKIP's ranks they are probably more genuinely welcome. But they are of a similar stock.
Like the NF, UKIP do sometimes get a bad press from the anti-racist movement - but there are two essential differences. The first is that charges of racism, and more especially those of fascism, stick far less. There are no embarrassing photographs of which I am aware of Farage parading around the English countryside in paramilitary uniform. No quotes about putting people into gas chambers. No prison sentences served for violent and unlawful political activity. The second is that much of the "left" which comprises that movement is still sufficiently emotionally attached to Labour not to want to unsettle too much a rising political party which takes most of its votes from the Tories.
Nevertheless, one has to ask whether the powers that be will ever trust UKIP, as an outsider party, enough to allow it to make the breakthrough which runs the risk of changing the character of a hitherto obedient party system forever. If it won't, then at some point they will need to act.
Currently the big parties seem to be following what is really something of a non-strategy, vying limply with one other for the UKIP vote. Doubtless the Tories, who have the most to lose, will be scouring the sewers for undiscovered dung piles which can be unveiled to the voting public at strategic times during the coming campaign. Labour loyalists meanwhile must decide just how comfortably their natural aversion the UKIP-style politics can sit with their hopes that a divided right-leaning vote will help ease Labour into office.