Flickr/Jennifer Jane Mills. Some rights reserved.
On the eve of the Rochester & Strood by-election, a torrent of opinion attacking UKIP appeared in newspapers which are committed to the main political parties – on this occasion particularly those supporting the Tories. Much of the coverage is without any basis in fact and lacking in proper sources or investigation. At its most comic, the Tory press printed, with straight face, stories about property values falling in the event that UKIP were to win (no sign yet of this happening only hours later).
Much of the comment has been written not for accuracy or insight about the party, but simply to find an attack stance on behalf of the partisan employer, the aim being to try to minimise the scale of the impending Tory defeat with the use of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, although some now use the word Deception). Peter Oborne in the Telegraph, stripped of the usual colourful language, essentially argued that some supposed incipient civil war between left and right in the party based upon ‘inherent contradictions’ will “signal the start of UKIP’s slide back into fringe insignificance”. On the night of its victory in the Rochester & Strood by-election, taking 42% of the vote from zero at the last General Election, the party has apparently already suffered “collapse under the weight of its own contradictions” and is the subject of an “enormous split” (nothing by the way has actually happened – this is media coverage of media coverage of unattributed quotes).
But this on-the-hoof and convenient prospectus on some dramatic divide is flawed and sums up once again how badly wrong the elite and political class has got it and how it fails to understand UKIP itself or the motivation of those who vote for it. These ‘contradictions’ in terms of left and right are not clear cut between different groups or individuals in camps, battling with each other for the heart and soul like Labour in the 70s and the Tories in the 90s. The supposed contradictions (if that is what they are) exist within each member and indeed each person within the leadership, including Farage and the two elected MPs themselves. Look no further than its newest MP Mark Reckless who says his first action will be to vote against his former party’s re-organisation of the NHS, now that he is not subject to their whips and party control, and who made supportive comments about gay marriage before defecting to UKIP.
Concepts of right and left are now confused with a large part of the electorate and they mean much less than they did. UKIP candidates, office holders and (most of all) voters are not hung up on thinking in terms of themselves as one or the other. And neither do they feel they have to support a particular line on a matter because it is left or right. So they pick and mix, which to commentators represents some sort of weakness and flaw when attacking the party or searching for a line. They never discuss whether it might be a strength, however wobbly the policy outcome is or lacking in depth. They miss the real issues with inconsistencies over policies, concentrating instead on personality at a time when most people do not know most of the personalities, except Farage.
A large group of people stripped of these notions will develop policy which, analysed by others, will appear as a ‘contradiction’. The recent changes over policy for the NHS came about through exactly such a strain of thinking, and no attempt to jam the party tortuously into an identikit Tea Party box can alter the degree to which its membership and voters will, within the structure of UKIP, to a great degree set the mood and direction.
openDemocracy can claim a role in helping UKIP’s policy on the NHS lurch from the vague rightwing sounding “let’s make it more efficient” to a full-on and thought-out support for the end of PFI and unqualified support for the Unite union’s campaign to keep the NHS out of the shadowy and worrying TTIP EU/USA trade agreement. openDemocracy’s provision of a platform to David Owen, who wisely included UKIP well over a year ago in the challenge to consider the matter, was specifically picked up by the membership and by elements of the leadership—as there is no governing ideology (for good or ill) this was an easy one, and I made this clear here on several occasions—but it is certainly sincere for all of its midroad swerve impression. As is continually pointed out now by commentators, UKIP can promise this kind of thing because of its stance on the EU. Labour is now rumoured to have no intention of acting to scupper the TTIP deal in parliament if the Coalition keeps the NHS within it, making any stance symbolic and allegedly explaining why it will not sign up to the Unite proposal. The other parties cannot easily promise sincerely what UKIP promises in areas like this, because of their commitment to the EU. So this is further ‘left’ than Labour in practice and probably the party’s biggest U-turn. And it will happen again.
There will of course be some individual differences but these pale against the important issue of who will be a UKIP MP after the election in May 2015. Because, quite simply, if UKIP were to win 20 seats, it is these 20 who, with an obvious eye on their voters and members, will set the direction of the party in almost all areas of policy outside of “Leave the EU”.
The idea of big donors setting the tenor and style of policy in areas like the NHS (or even something like re-nationalisation if it were to raise its head, which it could) is a red herring – serious donors like Paul Sykes are, for example, mostly interested in the party’s stance on leaving the EU. Not a single donor has raised an objection or an eyebrow over the party’s adoption of the Unite union stand on opposition to the NHS being part of TTIP. These donors are not some Tea Party in waiting with billions of corporate money, they are small businessmen made good who share many of the same contradictions as the members.
We just do not know who these UKIP MPs could/will be. Nigel Farage and the NEC might try to line up in the ‘seats most likely to fall to UKIP’, but the uncertain position of these in three- or four-horse races and the impact of UKIP on other parties there could mean that not one of these particular seats will fall, and those 20 elected will be elsewhere. Trying to predict the UKIP possibilities now when it has never had anyone near to being elected as an MP in any previous General Election is very difficult, in spite of all the research and figures produced.
As usual, the commentator who appears to have grasped most firmly the issues at the core of UKIP is Matthew Goodwin, author of Revolt on the Right which I reviewed for openDemocracy when it was published. In essence he is saying that much on the conveyor belt of conventional wisdoms about UKIP is wrong. He is right. His relative disinterest, bringing a drier academic aspect to the issues, allows him a greater freedom to actually say what he sees. This is just not possible with the noisy and extreme cries from partisan commentators in the press. TV on the other hand is tame and nervous about its own involvement in politics so tends to avoid serious analysis outside of late night programmes.
The rise of the leftwing aspect of UKIP, inevitable even to anyone who was in a senior position a decade ago, will pose issues for the party, but so does all policy outside of the simple one of leaving the EU. Just ask the LibDems, whose rise has been studied intensely by UKIP. There will be plenty of “the leadership distancing itself from…” in future articles. But it will barely matter. As long as there is confusion about policy—statements on the hoof, sudden and violent changes—commentators will talk about those ‘collapses under the weight of contradictions’ while people like myself will wince. Indeed, a decade ago, this very problem worried a group of us on the NEC to such a degree that we wanted it resolved through a serious commitment to properly costed policy as would befit a major party.
But on reflection, we were probably wrong in the same way that Oborne is today – or rather that there was not the imperative that we thought there was. Setting up the iron girder then in a changing landscape might well have hobbled the party. The lessons from Italy in regard to the M5S (Five Star Movement) have shown that, rightly or wrongly, impressions and mood are more important than the detail.
But there has to be policy, and will be. Some of it will certainly be ‘left wing’. The supposed contradictions might unite the commentariat in tut-tutting. But it will go straight over the heads of the electorate and allow UKIP to score goals. And in the meantime the commentators miss the real issues about any weaknesses of UKIP policies in terms of cost etc – because the other parties the newspapers support are nervous about being dragged onto the ground where UKIP forcefully make the point that ‘it’s the EU that decides, therefore the policies of the main parties are pie in the sky’.
For progressives, the lesson surely is to lobby UKIP on policy and persuade the party in key areas (we now know it can be done) – and try to forget the outdated and counter-productive stance based upon trying to play the ‘racist’ card, which antagonises the voters.