The resilience of UKIP

Despite hysterical coverage of “splits” and “crises”, UKIP is likely to be the big beneficiary of UK politics over the next three years.  

Damian Hockney
7 June 2015
UKIP road show

UKIP is not a 'flash in the pan'. Flickr/Chris. Some rights reserved.Both the ‘main’ UK parties are breathing a sigh of relief that UKIP made no advances in numbers of seats at the UK General Election due to the nature of the first past the post (FPTP) system.  The partisan press, left and right, has since been full of UKIP ‘splits’ and ‘self destructions’, hoping that the textbook ‘flash in the pan’ narrative will apply. However, these seem to have died down already, to be replaced by the alleged savagery of claim and counter claim by various contestants to be Labour leader. And of course the barely concealed grim menace and standoff which clearly exists within the Tory party over the EU, now spilling out into the press. It is vaguely polite. At the moment.

The electoral future of UKIP and its cohesion, is bound up with the EU referendum, just as much in regard to what happens in the long run-up to the vote, not just in regard to the vote itself. The realisation of how well UKIP could benefit has essentially stopped all talk of internal dissent. Like the Scottish referendum, it will expose over a long period the dangers for Labour of seeming to be in bed with the government and crucially with some of the businessmen being pushed forward to lend ‘credibility’ whose tax affairs, past public statements, involvement in financial scandals, bonuses etc will this time all be up for scrutiny by the No side. This has started already. And if only UKIP appears to be the champion of the voter, while Labour sits on its hands, the result in the North at various electoral contests could be similar to what happened in Scotland on 7th May.

Almost 4 million voted UKIP on 7th May, and there is now little real sign that the party is on the verge of serious infighting, less indeed than at any time in its history. There is a reason: the one potentially big beneficiary in UK politics over the next three years is UKIP, and there is just too much to lose.  Irrespective of any iron rule that is alleged to be being imposed, for the first time in 20 years, they appear not to have to be told to hold back.

The impact of Scotland

As a former Vice Chair of UKIP, NEC member for five years and former leader of the party on the London Assembly from 2004, I remember that it was almost a mantra that UKIP’s day would come when a majority Tory government was in power, cheerfully trampling all over its own supposed election-fuelled ‘euroscepticism’, and betraying (in the somewhat revolutionary language of the younger UKIP NEC members) the Tories status as the real ‘enemy of the people’ etc etc. A taste of this occurred when in 2010 the Tories so casually dumped promises about the Lisbon Treaty. But then they were in coalition and could justify it.

This time, the Tories are in a majority, and there is a suspicion, being aired now almost daily in the press, that the Prime Minister’s re-negotiation of the UK’s position in the EU will be nothing more than window dressing, very similar to the fraudulent prospectus put to the British people in the previous referendum in 1975 and by the hapless Prime Minister John Major’s self inflicted wound in 1991 claiming ‘game set and match for Britain’ over Maastricht, only to find himself bowled out by the European Commission over the detail, proving that indeed he returned ashen faced to the changing room as the loser. In each case, the relevant EU/EEC institutions were prepared to sit back and allow a pretend victory to be claimed, knowing that they in fact had ‘won’.

The difference now, of course, is the seismic effect of the Scottish referendum (and the failure of the elite to keep its credibility or be believed during it) and the fact that there are more stakeholders today who are, to a greater or lesser degree, ‘eurosceptic’. Some are just candid friends of the EU, others rabid enemies. With a lot in between. The press in 2015 is not slavishly Europhile as it was in 1975 and even government-supporting newspapers have made front page headlines out of stories calling on the Prime Minister to come clean on what he is asking for (and raising suspicions that it all could be another con).

UKIP’s candidates, including those who now control their first local authority, (ironically the seat where Nigel Farage stood and lost to the Tories), the 120 who came second all over the country at the General Election (mostly in Labour seats where the “Tories cannot win”), the MEPs, the candidates for the 2016 Welsh and London Assemblies, all know that the stakes are high, and that they could realistically be elected. No longer lambs to the slaughter in any election. And they believe they will be the winners. Polling in Wales, for example, shows the party broadly keeping its percentage in voting intention from the General Election, and therefore possibly winning seven seats at the 2016 Welsh Assembly Elections. By any stretch, even in the least promising area of England, London, UKIP will once again take seats on the London Assembly after an eight year drought.

That is why the UKIP splits, which surfaced briefly, have vanished amid an internal welter of whispered “what on earth are we doing?”s.

It’s important also to understand UKIP candidates’ motivations and (genuinely held) beliefs, and determination. Most UKIP members/supporters firmly believe that the planned re-negotiation is an intentionally cynical con by a Prime Minister determined at all costs to campaign for staying in the EU, and to try and bury the issue. It is not a pose. Their position of course is that the failure to provide red lines or a serious set of beliefs in advance simply betrays a classic politician-style desire to affect one thing while doing another.

On that basis, they are not surprised to have it ‘confirmed’ to them that the referendum question has been rigged in favour of the government and its desire to campaign for a yes. They ‘know’ already that the referendum will see the Yes campaign somehow allowed to spend more, be given preferential treatment by state radio and tv, that its use of terminology and wording will slant against the No side. They ‘know’ that managers of big businesses or failed banks who want something for their firm like landing rights or subsidies or something big written off and their salaries/bonuses kept intact, will be leaned upon to be quoted citing the Armageddon if voters say No, so it can dutifully be reported at third hand in the press…but these people will never be called to account for their views or challenged by tv news, thus demonstrating the bias. Very similar to the Scottish referendum.

But of course what this means, as it did in Scotland, is that the referendum will be seen by all those involved as the start of the process, not the thing that settles it. “This one we all know was unfair, so we need another, this time exposing all those who fabricated the lies and smears, and then we will get a fair result” will go the narrative. With some justification. Irrespective of who wins the referendum when it eventually and tortuously happens, it is almost a win-win situation for a UKIP which in the meantime will be collecting seats in Wales and London, and probably doing well in by-elections. In these situations, in-fighting will be kept to a minimum.

Danger for Labour

The ironic danger for Labour in particular is that its own position could be the one most badly hit, allying to the Tories in a campaign that becomes ever more tawdry, slipping into the defence of the indefensible, fixing itself fast to the Tory government for a long, long period and seeming to accept many aspects of laws which, it will be exposed, are unchangeable within the EU. Labour’s position on the TTIP, the shadowy proposed trade agreement between the US and the EU, will be exposed at a time when the party is anxious to avoid debate. Ford and Goodwin in their book Revolt on the Right, and with ever increasing volume since, have suggested on numerous occasions over the past few years that Labour has at least as much to lose as the Tories from voters turning to UKIP.  Possibly more.

A single business slip by a manager of a failed bank who has been called upon to provide a front page quote for the Yes campaign, the accompanying clamour as the individual is noisily heckled at his place of business and witheringly called to account, the backfiring of the Yes campaign: all could lead to a meltdown of the Labour vote in its Northern heartlands if Labour is seen to be too close. Only UKIP was prepared to air the murky issues surrounding the Chair of the CBI, Sir Michael Rake, and the involvement of his businesses in FIFA, the Barclays fraud etc.

This is only the start, where so many leaders of failed banks and conglomerates who have been involved in international frauds and investigations will be wheeled in by politicians to give credibility to the arguments. Their past records of signing their names to unwise statements about the potential disaster of not joining the euro, and their business ethics, will inevitably be called into question and it will be demanded that they give an account of themselves. This has never happened before but it will occur this time, because at the end of the Scottish referendum campaign, the political class relied a great deal on this, and it is the settled will among many in UKIP that there appeared to be very little done to counter it. At present the only group publicly countering the claims of the embryonic Yes side is UKIP – and the Yes side is making the similar type of mistakes that it made in Scotland which eventually whittled down its existing lead.

The idea of calling in Tony Blair which has even been (possibly mischievously) aired, bears all the hallmarks of what went wrong in Scotland. UKIP would be the most likely electoral beneficiary of such a spectacularly inept move.

As a former Vice Chair of UKIP, NEC member for five years and leader of the party on the London Assembly from 2004, I was often uncomfortably at the centre of the party’s internal differences in my last two years. These differences marred the small and ongoing victories/advances we made and the attempts to create cohesion and policy/strategy. I myself in the end left the party. However, recent ‘splits’ since the 2015 General Election, appear less serious, shallower, and more grown up, even though they now involve people who by virtue of election and public status/profile are now “more important” (for want of a better word) than we were.  They have even been accompanied by kind words about “doing the decent thing” from Farage about someone who resigned after having made unpleasant personal remarks about him.

Attempts even to make an issue of party leader Nigel Farage’s non-resignation have fallen flat and appear to come solely from the purse lipped partisan chattering class.

The savagery of the past has given way to handshakes and acknowledgments that someone departing a position has indeed done ‘the right thing’. This will have a major effect on the survival of the party.

The danger for Labour is simply that it will discount the enormous impact of UKIP on the recent General Election, assume that it is a one-off and try ‘business as usual’. But Scotland should tell them of the dangers of the impact of the sheer mechanics of a noisy, angry and contentious campaign over EU membership. There are signs that this is beginning to be understood, but of course the party will in all probability find it quite difficult to ‘re-engage’ with local people if the candidates and the local people do not agree on issues (like immigration).

The curious mix of right and left

Many have commented that there may be an almighty battle between ‘red’ and ‘blue’ UKIP over policy. The argument goes that the party needs to make sure it builds on the second places it scored all over the North. And that this will offend the ‘right’. But of course, this presupposes that there really is much difference between the two ‘wings’. The argument is understandable but ignores the fact that most UKIP members are a curious mix of left and right already. They are not so much divided between one lot and another, as divided each person internally by what seem like contradictions. This was even a major issue internally during planning for General Elections when I was involved, until a decade ago and kept re-surfacing over desires to re-nationalise the railways etc.  It was never the cause of bust-ups though. When UKIP’s only MP, the supposed right winger Douglas Carswell, attacks ‘crony corporatism’, he has the full support of anyone on the ‘red’ side.  When MEP Louise Boors rallies the troops against the undemocratic TTIP which will damage the NHS, she is cheered by all.

When I asked many UKIP members and elected representatives a year or two ago to read the pieces on openDemocracy about the TTIP, every single one (including all my old friends on the free market right) agreed totally with the content. If the supposedly progressive view of the world will not stand up to the EU on such aspects of policy (or do so only weakly and with little enthusiasm), then UKIP is likely to gain yet more votes from both sides, in the way that the LibDems did so well for a generation until the recent meltdown.

And success, recent and future, makes for a ship that is easier to manage. By any yardstick, UKIP’s millions of votes were a success and the major failure (lack of seats) regarded as systemic. There will of course be issues and arguments, but these will not have the same impact as, for example, the Kilroy-Silk departure a decade ago. 

The state has effectively handed UKIP a real reason to knuckle down – all these endless elections and votes in which the party is doing better and better (it makes it fun, apart from anything else), and the referendum. Until two or three years ago, UKIP had its five-yearly spike at the European Elections… and then nothing. And the frustration in the party was palpable at the derisory General Election votes up to and including 2010. All that has changed.

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