Full speed ahead to the referendum, but on all other fronts UKIP is treading water
Given the unedifying way in which Day One of UKIP’s 2015 party conference ended, the leadership is probably relieved to have been bumped down to third place in last night’s television news running order by the assorted villains and criminals at Volkswagen and FIFA.
After a day in which the coming EU referendum was placed front and centre, UKIP somehow managed to finish the day with much of the media talking about a potential split in the party over which “Out” campaign group to support. Rather than talk about how best to fight and win the referendum, the party was seen to be bickering over which group it most wanted to fight the EU referendum with. The inter-group rivalry is not all UKIP’s fault, it must be acknowledged, but it does not bode well for the eurosceptic cause if we are already witnessing bickering and glory-seeking on this scale.
Just when UKIP’s laser focus on winning the coming EU referendum should be paying real early dividends, the party is mired in a contentious debate over which eurosceptic campaign group’s bid to be given lead campaigner designation by the Electoral Commission should be supported. That – and the almighty row which blew up between Douglas Carswell and donor Arron Banks – does leave the party vulnerable to criticism and mockery like this:
Having fluffed the first objective of this party conference – setting out a clear plan for engaging with the overall “Out” campaign – UKIP failed to convincingly answer the second question that this blog views as critical to UKIP’s longer term success, namely what type of party they intend to be once the EU referendum is fought and won (or lost).
Nigel Farage’s keynote speech revealed an all-consuming desire to fight and win the Brexit referendum, which is entirely unsurprising for man who has dedicated the better part of his life to the cause of engineering Britain’s exit from the European Union. So far, so good. But by the end of Day One, it seemed that this laser-focus on the referendum was coming at the expense of a broader discussion about the future direction of UKIP.
As I mentioned in my preview of UKIP’s 2015 conference, the United Kingdom Independence Party currently draws its support from a number of quite distinct support bases. There are the social conservatives and traditionalists, mostly ex-Tory voters. Then you have the “lost Labour” voters, those who are repelled by the modern Labour Party’s superficial virtue signalling, unquestioning embrace of uncontrolled immigration and perceived lack of patriotism.
There is also a significant body of support from the so-called economically “left behind” voters from Britain’s faded coastal resort towns, where pro-UKIP sentiment is very strong. And finally, there are the young (and old) libertarian types – for so long the backbone of the party, until relatively recently.
All of these disparate groups are currently joined under the UKIP banner in an uneasy alliance because they share the common goal of a Britain independent of the EU. But what happens when the EU referendum is won (or lost)? What, if anything, will keep these separate groups together in the post-election landscape?
That’s the conversation which should have started taking place at this conference. But it is a conversation which has been assiduously avoided by nearly everyone, including the party leader. Of all the people I have spoken to here in Doncaster over the past couple of days, only Douglas Carswell has come close to offering an answer:
There is one final opportunity this conference for UKIP to sketch out a post-referendum vision. Nigel Farage will be speaking again, delivering the closing address, as this blog argued was essential. But while this is may undo some of the damage from yesterday’s intra-party squabble – and ensure that delegates are sent away from Doncaster on a high – it is not likely to answer the question.
Nigel Farage is focused on the EU referendum above all else, and that’s fine. But if Farage is unwilling or unable to provide UKIP with broader strategic leadership as he devotes himself to the “Out” campaign, then someone else in the party needs to be empowered to take responsibility for shaping and positioning the party with a view to 2020.
The UKIP leadership has not traditionally been good at empowering other voices within the party, but it is now becoming essential that this happens. Fortunately for UKIP, the party now boasts a slightly deeper bench of talent from which to draw, if only Nigel Farage is willing to share a degree of control – and the spotlight.
I wrote before about the self-sacrificial tone to the conference yesterday, that the laudable goal of placing “country before party” was in danger of causing UKIP to take their eye off the ball and find themselves uncertain where they stand by the time the 2020 general election rolls around. But a week is a long time in politics, let alone five years – and these fears could be proven to be unfounded.
However, it remains difficult to see how UKIP’s existing coalition of voters can be persuaded to stick together under the UKIP umbrella when the goal of an EU referendum has been achieved. If UKIP are to sustain or improve their position after the referendum, difficult choices will need to be made about which supporters to keep, which potential new supporters to woo, and which supporters should be allowed to drift away.
UKIP have not used their conference as an opportunity to begin this existential conversation. And fair enough – there is still plenty of time. But the clock is ticking.