Sorry, Lord Adonis, but Nigel Farage was created by your pal Tony Blair (not the BBC)

Sorry, Lord Adonis, but Nigel Farage was created by your pal Tony Blair (not the BBC)

The role that Nigel Farage has played over the years in helping to secure the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union is well documented and I do not want to cover that in detail here. Suffice to say that while the divisive antics of him and his friends at Leave.EU during the referendum campaign itself were often arguably damaging to the overall cause of securing a Leave vote, Farage and UKIP were without doubt vital trailblazers for Brexit whose influence should not be underestimated.

As Matthew Elliott and I wrote last year in our feature recognising 50 groups which could take a share of the credit for Brexit:

UKIP unquestionably succeeded in getting concerns about the EU higher up the political agenda and arguably their biggest impact was to pressurise the Conservatives – and David Cameron in particular – into pledging an In/Out referendum on Britain’s membership in 2013.

So how was it that Nigel Paul Farage and UKIP were in a position to exert such pressure?

Well, the blame lies pretty much at the door of the BBC, according to Labour peer Lord Adonis, who dragged himself away from his Twitter feed yesterday morning to appear on Sky News’ Sunday with Niall Paterson and make the preposterous claim in a live interview.

True to form, Adonis defended his assertion that Brexit and Farage are “largely the creation of the BBC”, insisting that “the BBC gave Farage a platform he otherwise would not have had”.

I think the noble Lord needs a bit of a history lesson, so let me help.

Nigel Farage first stood for Parliament in June 1994 at the Eastleigh by-election, where he came fourth, less than 200 votes ahead of Lord Sutch of the Monster Raving Loony Party. On the same day he sought election to the European Parliament in the Hampshire constituency of Itchen, Test & Avon, also coming a distant fourth with 5.4% of the vote.

He was one of two dozen UKIP candidates seeking election to Brussels at that juncture: it was the first time that the party (which had been formed out of the Anti-Federalist League in late 1993) put up candidates for election, fighting 24 of the 84 constituencies across England, Scotland and Wales and securing just 1% of the national vote.

Those 84 constituencies were of course fought under the First Past The Post electoral system and the elections to the European Parliament in 1979, 1984, 1989 and 1994 had each seen the haul of seats shared by Labour and the Conservatives, save for one or two Scottish Nationalists and – in 1994 – two Liberal Democrats. Indeed, at the 1989 contest, when the post-SDP/Liberal merger Lib Dems were at a low ebb and the public seemed less than enamoured of the two major parties, the Greens nationally came third, securing 2.3 million votes – 15% of the votes cast across Britain – but not getting a single MEP elected due to the nature of the electoral system.

Farage’s next attempt to seek elected office came in 1997 when he contested Salisbury at the general election and attained 5.7% of the vote. On that day, UKIP (contesting 194 constituencies) were somewhat eclipsed in the hunt for eurosceptic votes by Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party, which fought 547 seats and had a far greater budget.

The two eurosceptic parties between them mustered 918,000 votes, less than 3% of the national total and were, again, unable to secure any representation under the First Past The Post system.

Without Tony Blair and his newly-elected Labour Government, Nigel Farage and his fellow travellers in UKIP would in all probability have languished in that position, devoid of elected representation. And this is where Lord Adonis needs to pay particular attention.

Pressure had been building in certain circles for some years to elect the British members of the European Parliament through a system of proportional representation (although local circumstances dictated that Northern Ireland’s three MEPs had always been elected under the STV system of PR). Back when Adonis was still a member of the Liberal Democrats, in 1990, one of the party’s peers, Lord Bonham-Carter, introduced a Bill in the Lords to introduce a system of PR for the European Parliament elections; and in 1993 the Lib Dems actually brought an action in the European Court of Justice against the European Parliament for failing to make proposals for a uniform electoral procedure for their elections.

It was later that year that Tony Blair, then Shadow Home Secretary, committed Labour to reforming the voting system for the European Parliament in his party conference speech and after the party’s historic general election victory in 1997 – by which time Adonis had joined Labour – Jack Straw, as Home Secretary, announced that the 1999 European Parliament elections would indeed be conducted using a regional list form of proportional representation in Great Britain.

Hence Tony Blair’s Labour Government – for whom Adonis would work in the Number 10 Policy Unit and later serve as a minister – introduced the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, about which you can read more in this detailed briefing from the time published by the House of Commons Library.

The Conservatives opposed changing the electoral system for the elections but were massively outvoted in the Commons by Labour and Lib Dem MPs.

And so it was that the 1999 European elections were fought under the new system of regional list PR that would make it easier for smaller parties to make their mark, with the Lib Dems increasing their numbers in Brussels from two to 10 MEPs and Plaid Cymru, the Greens and – yes – UKIP gaining representation there for the first time.

UKIP’s first three MEPs were Michael Holmes, Jeffrey Titford and Nigel Farage – able to use Labour’s new PR system to gain a platform they “otherwise would not have had”, Lord Adonis. With that representation came a duty on broadcast media outlets to take account of that support and enable them to air their point of view occasionally.

And over the ensuing decade, while the mainstream political parties refused to entertain the agenda of leaving the EU, successive European election results showed an increasing inclination among the British public to back that position as UKIP grew as a force, in turn exerting pressure on the Conservatives in particular to back a referendum on EU membership.

So there you have it: aside from his dear parents, the responsibility for “creating” Nigel Farage lies with two political parties of which Lord Adonis has been a member and the Blair Government which he was happy to serve.

And whatever you say about Nigel Farage, while he has never won election to Westminster, he has at least secured election to the European Parliament fairly and squarely to represent South East England on four successive occasions.

The last (indeed only) time Lord Adonis was ever elected to anything was as councillor for North ward on Oxford City Council in 1987, attaining 1,234 votes as SDP candidate and not seeking re-election in 1991 (having unsuccessfully fought the city’s Central ward in 1986). His Wikipedia entry records that he was then twice selected as a candidate – for the Lib Dems in a parliamentary seat and Labour in a council seat – but on both occasions stepped down and did not actually fight the contests.

Tony Blair then gave Adonis “a platform he otherwise would not have had” when he handed him a seat in the House of Lords by virtue of a life peerage in 2005.

As for the notion that Adonis persists in propagating that the BBC has given Farage and the Brexit cause undue exposure on its Thursday night Question Time programme, he would do well to read this research published by the Institute of Economic Affairs in January.

The IEA found that of the 281 panellists on the show over the previous 18 months, 60% were Remain supporters, 31% Brexit supporters and the remaining 9% ‘Releavers’. With that two-to-one bias in favour of those who voted for Remain, it’s a wonder Adonis can make his claims with a straight face.