UKIP Conference 2015: Confronting Missed Expectations, Looking Ahead

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Much less hype around the start of this year’s UKIP party conference in Doncaster.

It’s only to be expected – this time last year, UKIP went into their party conference buoyed by a historic victory in the European elections, as well as the recent defection of respected MP Douglas Carswell from the Tories. In 2014, UKIP had all to play for going into next year’s general election. In 2015 – after many of those high hopes were dashed by the cruelties of the first-past-the-post electoral system – there is a danger that UKIP may one day look back on that conference as the high water mark of their achievement as a political party.

In a sign of how much the political landscape has changed since then, in 2014 Nigel Farage brought the UKIP party conference to Doncaster in order to “park their tanks on the lawn” of then Labour leader, Ed Miliband. Twelve months later and Ed Miliband represents his Doncaster constituency from the backbenches, having spectacularly lost the general election and resigned from the leadership, opening the door for the Jeremy Corbyn earthquake. But as Nigel Farage admitted on an interview with BBC Yorkshire News just now, sometimes things happen in politics that nobody can predict or control – and under the circumstances, Farage insisted that he remains proud of UKIP’s four million votes.

Nonetheless, the sense of hype and occasion around this year’s conference feels considerably less than last year. Aside from this blog’s preview of UKIP Conference 2015, there has been little advance coverage, with most media focusing on the imminent carnival that will be Labour’s first party conference under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

The Telegraph’s Kate McCann has a piece charting the waxing and waning of UKIP’s fortunes over the past year, and setting out areas of possible future contention:

For a time it looked like Ukip might tear itself apart as critics at the very top of the party laid into Mr Farage for flip flopping over whether he would go or stay – leading to headlines about his un-resignation.

Add to that concerns about Ukip’s cash flow, top donors warning the leader should take a back seat in the EU referendum campaign and concerns over his health, the party has a hill to climb.

And in a separate piece, McCann reveals that UKIP is anticipating a “significantly low” number of delegates at Conference this year, compared with 2014’s record attendance:

The party was not able to supply the number of tickets it had sold last night, but confirmed it was far lower than last year and that leader Nigel Farage is aware.

The spokesman added that Ukip has run ticket offers in previous years but that it had introduced the 2015 offer “within the last week or so”.

The party held its biggest ever annual conference at the same Doncaster venue in 2014 where thousands of members turned up.

Ukip’s MP Douglas Carswell said it “would not be surprising” if numbers were low, adding that the party’s election victory in the European vote in 2014 boosted interest.

Interesting enough, and it will be interesting to get a feel for the atmosphere of the hall tomorrow on the main headline day of the conference. But all this focuses more on political tactics and optics. Far more interesting, though, is the long-term strategy for UKIP, who have grown from being a very niche political party for committed eurosceptics and constitutional obsessives, then a wider but still marginal libertarian outfit, to their present incarnation as the People’s Army and practitioners of Common Sense Politics.

As I begin to outline in my own preview of the coming UKIP 2015 party conference, the present shape and composition of the membership is probably not sustainable, certainly not past the coming EU referendum in 2017. Those of a small government, libertarian stance are able to find common cause with disaffected Old Labour types and social conservatives, so long as these disparate groups have the unifying goal of winning the Brexit referendum to unite each other. But when the referendum is done and Britain’s fate (one way or another) is decided, it will be much harder to convince these various groups to all remain within the UKIP tent. Tensions will rise, and a choice may ultimately have to be made.

Following the Nigel Farage un-resignation saga after the election, some commentators spoke of a power struggle within UKIP, with figures such as Raheem Kassam representing the “Tea Party” populist libertarian wing of the party ultimately losing and leaving the party in a victory for other Ukippers with less of an aversion to Big Government. Maybe so. But those few negative headlines over the summer were just a skirmish – if this fault line within UKIP cannot be bridged (how could it be?) then there could be more serious trouble ahead.

And that’s where the real interest will be found in UKIP Conference 2015. At present, the party is able to make satisfactory inroads into the “left behind” Southern vote, the disillusioned-with-Labour Northern vote and the much smaller young libertarian vote, all at the same time. But once the unifying target of the Brexit referendum no longer looms large on the horizon, one or more of those factions will make a play for dominance, and at present it is far from certain which group would win.

For a political party that has a reputation for being polarising, even “toxic” to some voters, UKIP actually currently attempts to be many things to many people. But there is a limit to how long UKIP can get away with this. By the time of the UKIP conference in 2020, the EU referendum and another UK general election will have taken place. It feels incredibly distant, but will come around soon. And the people and ideas that take UKIP forward past 2020 will probably be in the hall and on stage in Doncaster tomorrow.

It might not be the stuff of viral YouTube videos, or even many newspaper column inches, but that’s the source of real interest in this conference.

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