Last year’s party conference saw UKIP fresh from victory in the 2014 European elections, and boosted by the shock defection of former Conservative MP Mark Reckless. Twelve months and one agonisingly unfair general election result later, what surprises can UKIP offer this time around?
Twelve months ago, the current British political landscape would have been completely unrecognisable, the stuff of fantasy.
The Labour Party had not yet imploded in a shower of more-compassionate-than-thou moralising. The SNP’s Westminster surge was beyond even the Scottish nationalists’ wildest expectations following the “No” vote in the Scottish independence referendum. In fact, there was only one political party which could claim to have any real momentum and be making tangible progress of any kind.
That party was UKIP. Twelve months ago, when Nigel Farage teased the UKIP 2014 conference delegates by telling them that a Tory MP would be speaking to them in his place – that MP being Mark Reckless, who then defected to UKIP live on stage to enormous cheers – there was a very real possibility that the second defection of a serving Member of Parliament from the Conservatives to UKIP might unleash the floodgates. At that time, it was entirely possible that UKIP could have ended the summer with a small handful of motivated, eurosceptic ex-Tory MPs, and a real Westminster presence.
Of course, that was not to be. In a general election trend which saw genuine acts of political courage punished across the board, Mark Reckless lost his Rochester seat, leaving UKIP with an army of one, Douglas Carswell, as its sole presence in the Commons. And in a result which laid bare the extent to which the current first-past-the-post system does not work in our new age of genuine multi-party politics, UKIP’s one MP was returned with nearly four million votes, while the SNP swept Scotland, winning 56 seats with just a quarter of the UKIP’s vote.
Where is the momentum now?
Having demonstrated such a strong improvement in results between 2010 and 2015, it seems strange to wonder whether UKIP might actually be losing momentum. But it is a real concern. The SNP’s 56 MPs and their whinnying anti-austerity, anti-Tory tantrum, together with the slow motion car crash that is the Labour Party, have sucked nearly all of the oxygen out of the political debate, leaving little airtime for UKIP and their agenda. And with five years until the next general election, many people have simply tuned out.
To their credit, UKIP have not been sitting back and doing nothing, despite having been the victim of a self-inflicted round of petty infighting as passions strained following the general election. UKIP have continued to press their agenda both as it relates to immigration and the free movement of people, and also the Conservative Party’s secretive and incompetently handled EU renegotiation, currently underway.
The European migration crisis
If the current European migration crisis teaches us any clear lesson, it is that the willingness of European citizens to tolerate the taking in of large numbers of refugees, no matter how genuine their cases, is sorely limited by the fact that their governments have pursued a policy of allowing uncontrolled migration within the EU despite having no democratic mandate to do so, not least in Britain.
Put aside the argument of how a government can possibly fulfil its responsibility to its own citizens whilst importing vast quantities of cheap foreign labour and doing nothing to help the domestic workforce upskill and adapt – that’s for another day. The fact remains that when the British people see their concerns about immigration summarily dismissed, and when they see an immigration policy that is clearly out of control, it reduces our overall willingness to help those in greatest need. That may be wrong, but it is undeniably true – you can feel the resentment bubbling away just under the surface in thousands of online and real-world conversations about the migrant crisis.
On this front, UKIP can plausibly claim to have been completely vindicated – and the fact that time has been set aside at the very top of the 2015 conference agenda for a segment entitled “Europe In Crisis – The Migrant Crisis” suggests that the party are now seeking to press the issue.
Say “No” to the EU
While the drip-drip of scaremongering stories arguing against Brexit continue in the national media, the eurosceptic side has been lamentably slow at organising in any meaningful way. This is largely because of internal politics within the Conservative Party. The Tories are officially bound to wait to see the outcome of David Cameron’s fruitless renegotiation exercise with Brussels before getting involved, and even then there remain questions about whether Conservative MPs will be free to campaign for an “out” vote without fear of future retribution from CCHQ.
But the Brexit movement cannot wait for David Cameron and the Tories to save face by going through the motions of a renegotiation which we already know stands no chance of delivering acceptable reform and a new Europe based on the co-operation of sovereign independent member states.
While there is an ongoing debate on how prominent a role UKIP should take in the overall “Out” campaign – with some fearing that the toxicity of the UKIP brand among so-called centrists may do more harm than good – the party has gone forward with a series of “Say No To The EU” rallies around Britain, seeking to build popular momentum for an “Out” vote.
So far these have been slick, well-managed and energised events, but from the look of the demographic who turn up it is uncertain that they are doing much to reach out beyond UKIP’s existing core vote.
What comes after Europe?
The elephant in this UKIP 2015 conference room is the fact that by the time the next general election rolls around in 2020, the referendum will have taken place and the British people will have made their choice. But what is undoubtedly a moment of great opportunity for UKIP is also a moment of real uncertainty.
If Britain votes to leave the EU, the chief aim of the United Kingdom Independence Party will be realised, apart from the hard bureaucratic work of physically and legally divorcing Britain from Brussels. But if there is an “In” vote in the referendum, it will represent a very high-profile rebuke to UKIP’s raison d’etre. Nigel Farage’s party just about held it together following a disappointing general election result this May. But if the Brexit referendum is lost, it is highly unlikely that the party will survive in its present shape and form.
In some ways, there is less to fear on this front than was the case even five years ago. The UKIP 2015 general election manifesto, ably written by Suzanne Evans, is a blueprint for the (generally conservative) governance of Britain in all areas – health, education, defence and more. UKIP are no longer the two-dimensional caricature of a political party that they were once accused of being. But there is a tension within the party which must be addressed and resolved in the coming years.
The recent rise of UKIP owes almost as much to disenchantment with UKIP in northern England than it does the defection of eurosceptic Shire Tories in the South. And there can be no denying that UKIP is also changing to accommodate this reality. What was once a rather libertarian, single-issue party has now grown into a generally conservative and patriotic party, but one with a big streak of red running through its membership. At present, this diverse membership is being held together by a shared hatred for the Westminster establishment and support for the “common sense” politics of Nigel Farage. But the anti-establishment label will become harder to wear if UKIP succeeds in gaining more representation in Westminster, perhaps through successful by-election campaigns. And though Nigel Farage is on fighting form at the moment, he cannot lead forever.
Thus, within the next five years, UKIP must successfully navigate the outcome of the Brexit referendum, whichever way it goes, as well as attempting to straddle a diverse membership made up of disaffected Labour supporters, former Shire Tories and young “don’t tread on me” libertarians. And at a time when even deeply established parties like Labour are threatening to tear themselves apart, there can be no doubting that UKIP could face a similar threat in the coming years.
A make or break conference?
At a time when most of the focus has been on the imploding Labour Party or the surging SNP, few observers are attaching much importance to the UKIP conference about to get underway in Doncaster. And in a way they are right – there are unlikely to be any sensational defections, amateurish PR gaffes or other memorable incidents to capture the attention of the press.
And yet when we look back on 2015, this could be seen as the conference which makes or breaks UKIP. Not in the sense that any careers are on the line today, or that terrible consequences await any missteps made over the next few days. But decisions taken at this conference – and more importantly, the general tone and sense of direction given by the party leadership – could be vital in determining whether UKIP is strongly positioned to survive the turmoil of the next five years in British politics, or if the party is destined to go the way of New Labour.
As long as the target of the 2016/2017 Brexit referendum looms ever larger in our sights, the unlikely coalition that makes up UKIP’s support base are likely to continue cohabiting without any real problem. But what happens when the European question is settled?
UKIP is a vastly more established political party than it was this time last year, and is almost unrecognisable from the party it was at the time of the last election, back in 2010. And this has been an unquestionably good thing for our stale, consensual politics.
However, interested observers will be watching closely for any signs indicating the type of party UKIP is likely to become by 2020. And a lot could ride on the answer.
Note: I am in Doncaster to cover the conference on Friday and Saturday, and will be live-blogging the UKIP 2015 party conference in real time on this site. Follow this blog for the latest news, commentary and interviews.
Note: This blog’s coverage of UKIP from 2014 can be found here.