Nigel Farage should not be underestimated. During an election campaign that has been as mundane as his repeated walkabouts in South Thanet, he has stolen the march on the other parties by reaching out to the country’s Christian voters.
Mr Farage, you see, has pledged to protect workers who hold traditional views on marriage and who refuse to carry out tasks that they believe would amount to condoning gay marriage.
The proposals were outlined in Ukip’s Christian Manifesto, which promised to introduce a conscience clause into equality law and calls for a return to a “muscular” idea of Christianity.
The move follows a series of well-publicised legal cases that have seen Christians and those of faith pushed to the very margins of the “public square”.
One such case is the appalling legal action against Northern Irish bakers, the Ashers, who were prosecuted after they turned down an order to make a cake bearing the slogan “support gay marriage” and featuring the Sesame Street TV characters Bert and Ernie cuddling.
The case has already had a chilling effect on free speech and threatens to open a Pandora’s box of similar cases against those with strong religious or philosophical beliefs.
So it is interesting that Ukip have taken up this cause. Critics will suggest that Mr Farage has made the pledge because he believes it will be popular. They might be right. A ComRes poll in July last year found that 60 per cent of British adults thought it was “disproportionately heavy-handed” for the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to seek to take Ashers to court for refusing to play the gay rights game.
The poll also showed that most people (55 per cent) agree there should be protection in law so that people are not forced to provide goods or services that violate their sincerely-held beliefs.
A YouGov poll in November found that 65 per cent of adults in the UK disapproved of taking Ashers Baking Company to court. Just a quarter thought it was right.
But it is just as possible Mr Farage recognises the unfairness of the current law. Indeed the Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Baroness Hale, has called for the law reasonably to accommodate those with religious beliefs. The former Bishop of Oxford also called for “reasonable accommodation” of religious belief in law, during a recent House of Lords debate. Lord Harries referred to recent cases in Europe where human rights appear to have clashed with core religious views. He said: “My own view is that human rights should prevail in areas of dispute but that the law should be formulated and enforced with what the Equality and Human Rights Commission once termed ‘reasonable accommodation’. That seems to be in the spirit of the culture of the United Kingdom”.
Ukip might hope this policy will help to boost their poll rating, but this will only happen if they can convince voters it is not just a gimmick. A similar pledge by Ed Miliband went virtually unnoticed – it was, after all, a throwaway line in a throwaway speech. Perhaps worse, those who heard his promise felt it was something the Labour leader thought he had to say, as he was speaking at a large Pentecostal church in London, but that he did not really believe it.
A line for the voters, but one that should he become PM, he has absolutely no intention of honouring.
Perhaps this explains why the Labour Leader’s pledge has not been followed by either David Cameron or Nick Clegg. The three main party leaders have very little time for those with traditional beliefs, indeed all three have been responsible for promoting legislation that has led to Christians, Jews and Muslims being persecuted for following their faith.
Hounded out of jobs, struck off adoption and fostering registers, and treated as outcasts.
It is against this backgroud that Ukip is seizing a political opportunity. Mr Farage and his band of purple warriors know that there are millions of ordinary people who, for religious or philosophical reasons, have grave concerns about the “liberalisation” of our culture. They are fed up with the derision that their beliefs garner from The Guardian reading Left. They, after all, still believe that politics is about more than just the naked pursuit of power. They believe in morality, patriotism and having a sense of right and wrong.
And, as both Labour and the Conservative leaderships have abandoned social conservatism, into this vacuum has marched Ukip hoovering up the votes of millions of disillusioned electors.
Yes, it is difficult to see Ukip making a breakthrough under the current voting system, but the party’s boring campaign could still see it affect the outcome of more than two dozen seats – seats that given the closeness of the election could mean the difference between getting the key to No 10 or five years of opposition.
And with this sort of electoral impact, the three parties would do well to take notice and follow suit.
The only problem, though, is whether a late conversion at this point would have any affect on the polls. It is impossible to say, but it wouldn’t hurt.