Ukip must offer a positive vision to break through the glass ceiling
After Ukip’s performance in the local elections a buoyant Nigel Farage indulged in a little triumphalism and declared: ‘the Ukip fox is in the Westminster hen house’, before going on to top the polls at the European elections. Ukippers everywhere now have a spring in their step and optimism coursing through their veins as attention turns to 2015. After the overly hyped Newark by-election they can pause for thought before the general election campaign begins. When they do, it would be advisable to be very careful about which path they choose to take and to ensure that optimism doesn’t turn into overconfidence.
Although it was a good line, the Ukip fox is in-fact merely sniffing around the Westminster hen-house licking its lips. The hens inside are spooked and clucking furiously but they are safe (for now). In the aftermath of the campaign for the elections in May it is now essential to put the situation in perspective. Ukip have no MPs, their national share of the vote in the local elections actually declined compared to the previous year, the turn out was abysmal and, crucially, people are far more cautious when electing for government.
Ukip have actually got a very daunting time ahead of them indeed. The odds are stacked against them: the first past the post system, a very hostile media and the far great resources of their opponents are highly debilitating factors to contend with. Most crucial of all for the future of the party is how they choose to run their campaign and the nature of their manifesto; if they get these wrong, they are finished. They must broaden their appeal to become a major party.
The 2010 manifesto was seemingly designed to attract disillusioned conservatives and BNP voters but it was incoherent nonsense. It damaged their credibility and they only attracted a meagre 3% of the vote. If somebody had told me then that Ukip would be going strong (relatively) in 2014 I would have found it difficult to believe. The manifesto was a ludicrous program for government which seemed to justify Ukip’s reputation as a silly rabble of swivel eyed regressives. Although Farage has disowned the policies of 2010, this has left a policy void which his opponents happily fill with quotes from the old manifesto about painting trains, allowing caning in schools and closing Britain’s borders for five years.
Nigel Farage had attempted to broaden the public perception of the party and attracted a wider range of support by adopting the libertarian label. They have made some progress in attracting younger members and growing their vibrant youth wing. It has however become increasingly difficult to walk the political tightrope between enticing supporters attracted to libertarian virtues, while also appeasing social conservatives and the angry pessimists who stand by the principles of the “old” Ukip. A party on the fringes can get away with being all things to all people, but if Ukip really want to make an impact in 2015 they must stand on principle.
My personal experience of meeting many Ukip members, supporters, candidates and sympathisers has been interesting. The vast majority were not the bitter cynics of stereotype, they were the post-2010 new blood; passionate, positive and determined. When I came across the cantankerous xenophobic fringe that undoubtedly exists, the new bloods were cringing in embarrassment. There is a major conflict within this young party and the fate of the insurgency from the right of British politics depends upon whoever wrests control of of its ideological destiny.
In September 2013 a Ukip activist, who I was conversing with outside a pub in Leeds, explained to me why he was a member of Britain’s insurgent party. “It’s a young party, still, open and not fully defined. I want to help shape it and make a mark, that’s why I joined”. His enthusiasm for Ukip was driven by optimism; he was a libertarian who saw the old parties bullishly defending the established political consensus and wanted to help break it up. Another candidate I met joined because he was dismayed with the performance of his Labour councillors, who are so deeply entrenched and unchallenged in areas of the north that they are able to act with impunity, safe in the knowledge that their local area is their personal fiefdom. They are only two of many who have joined since 2010 hoping to make their mark. They can be a source of strength or weakness; it depends entirely on how the party’s leadership chooses to act. As things stand, the signs are not good.
As 2014 came upon us the campaign for the May elections unofficially began. This was Ukip’s opportunity, its time to shine, they were about to get more exposure than ever before. I believe the party leadership made a grave error in judgement in how they chose to use the publicity. Having decided to target the white working class vote they created a narrow campaign which was a big step back from the effort made to broaden Ukip’s horizons. Rather than using the exposure to show the country the “new Ukip” it reverted to the form of an anti-immigration pressure group. The major parties used the opportunity to draw attention to their stance on broader issues, as well as local and European. Nigel Farage personally criticised Labour for failing to focus on the issue of the EU, although this was a legitimate complaint the failure to promote Ukip’s position on a broader range of issues was a missed opportunity.
The campaign began by targeting Romanians and Bulgarians and it relied heavily on riding the wave of anxiety. At the spring conference they foolishly “reclaimed” a BNP slogan and Farage caused controversy by saying he felt uncomfortable around foreign language speakers (which seemed like political opportunism rather than sincerity) . Then the giant pointing finger warned us of immigrants coming to take our jobs, cynical politics 101; sow the seed of resentment. Finally, the climax was a “tired” Farage crudely warning us about Romanians moving in next door before arranging a farcical ethnic “carnival” (complete with steel drums) to show his non-racist credentials. It was a cringe worthy shambles but he crossed the finish line bruised and battered. My hope is that he does not feel vindicated by the decent performance at the elections, his party will need a different approach to make an impact next year.
Ukip’s cynical campaign, designed to stir xenophobia amongst an unsettled section of the populace, won the euro elections but in alienating the libertarians, moderates and ethnic minorities it will harm Ukip’s long term prospects. The much publicised fallout from the resignation of Sanya-Jeet Thandi exemplifies this; she was a poster girl, young, enthusiastic and articulate. She defended Ukip on national television and yet felt driven away. Farage acted mystified and blamed peer pressure. In reality her decision is understandable, how could she look her family and friends in the eye? This 20 year old British Indian surely must have seen Ukip’s giant pointing finger and realised that just a few generations ago it would have been pointing at her own family. A rational and reasonable political message (in this case against mass immigration) communicated in the wrong way simply becomes pernicious.
Ukip immigration policy, as Farage has often pointed out, is no longer an arbitrary freeze but an Australian style “points system”. A fair and constructive argument for a balanced and managed immigration policy can be made, it is what Ms. Thandi herself espoused, but the populism Ukip has been indulging in will attract more of the undesirable individuals that have embarrassed them with racist outbursts. Before it begins its 2015 campaign Ukip must finally choose whether to be a principled party, or whether to chase the easy votes that cheap populism brings, I hope it makes the right choice.
The right choice is to stand on the platform of freedom and embrace fully the virtues of liberty, individual freedom and limits to state power. As it stands Ukip has scared away much of the middle class and the young, they have polarised opinion more than ever before and even harmed the eurosceptic cause by linking it in the electorates mind with anti-immigration rhetoric. All is not lost yet, they have another great opportunity because the general election campaign will bring even more exposure, publicity and public interest.
This is, I believe, Ukip’s last chance to redefine itself, broaden its appeal and offer the positive vision a major party needs. That positive vision should be on centre stage from now until next May, they should proudly shout from every soap box pledges to restore national sovereignty, shrink the bloated state and reduce taxes for the middle and lower classes. They should stand up for British liberty; limits to state power, freedom of expression, the presumption of innocence and jury trial. They should stand against the debt burden, high taxation and bureaucracy, and condemn secret courts and the destruction of civil liberties wrought by terror laws. That’s a positive vision to really believe in, the kind that can spur a country, and it is the only path they can choose that won’t lead to eventual oblivion and irrelevance.
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