When Ukip chose to hold their conference in Doncaster it was obviously meant to send a signal. They were “parking their tanks on Labour’s lawn”, it was to be an act of naked political aggression. I have long found the Ukip of the north to be a curious element of the party. The activists, enthusiasts, councillors and candidates I have met in the north are mostly not disgruntled Conservatives but actually are either former Labour supporters or people who have been lulled out of apathy by Ukip’s rise. In places like Leeds, Hull, Barnsley and, yes, Doncaster the grass roots are a passionate bunch who, while being fairly scornful of David Cameron’s Tories, are far more motivated by their desire to disrupt the cosy Labour fiefdoms.
What is remarkable about their enthusiasm is that they have such a mountain to climb in the red heartlands; these are places that have been Labour for decades. I hear complaints of complacency, stagnation, of self serving councillors who hand out favours to friends and of Labour’s betrayal of working class people. The people gathering under the purple banner in pubs and social clubs in the north are like a swelling resistance movement and they are curiously indifferent to the idea of ‘left’ and ‘right’. They are united in their dislike for the nanny state, political correctness, the European Union and elitism and desire a smaller state and a revival of freedom of speech, but beyond this it is difficult to group them under an easy to define political philosophy. The ideological battle going on within Ukip has pulled it back and forth over the last four years, and now the Ukippers of the north are an influential part of it.
On the train to Doncaster I noted down what I expected to be a major part of the political agenda at the conference. Ukip have been steadily changing their tone and attempting to move away from the anti-immigrant campaign of the euro elections that was an electoral success for them, but alienating for some elements of the party such as the moderates and the libertarians. I argued back then that Ukip will need to offer a positive vision to widen their appeal and grow as a party and thought it cynical to ride a wave of xenophobia with anti-immigrant populism; the conference seems to mark a step away from this and a change of tone. I also noted my expectation that they would turn their sights on the Labour Party, my, what an oracle I am.
What has surprised me is the extent to which Labour had become the primary focus; this was an all out assault, and in a Labour heartland too. They had guests speaking under the theme “leaving Labour”, I listened to Natasha Bolter, a former Labour member from Tower Hamlets, tell the conference that she left the Labour Party because they “no longer represent the working class”. The attack on Labour is no longer focussed solely on immigration, but a cross section of policies that are designed to win the votes of former old Labour voters. Disgruntled Tories are no longer the main target group; Farage has declared war and plans to “tear vast chunks out of the old Labour vote”.
After ordering an absurdly expensive Heineken I set about schmoozing and gauging the atmosphere. Immediately it was obvious that there was an excitement, enthusiasm and general sense of positivity that was completely absent from the Labour conference. It comes from a party that is heading into the unknown, on the rise but not having to worry about the challenge of governing just yet. Still, far from seeming like a party that has peaked, this was an insurgency that was full of energy. The possibility of gaining their first MP has reinvigorated Ukip and this was evident from the general mood of the conference and in the buoyancy of every member that I spoke to. The people attending really believe that his is a party that is going places, I never got a sense from them that they were the kind of voters that could be won back to the Tories with a change of leadership or a policy sweetener or two.
I sat to listen to several speakers and it became clear that Ukip are using this conference to prove that they are not a one man show, that they have matured as a party and that there is more to them than Nigel Farage. They did this by spreading out policy announcements so that it was clear the party now has several prominent spokesmen. Jane Collins MEP, the employment spokesman, gave a powerful and stirring speech and set the agenda of the day. She was the first speaker and she immediately set about criticising the Labour Party over the Rotherham child abuse scandal. She called for criminal charges to be brought against those who covered up the abuse and went so far as to accuse local Labour MPs of being aware of the abuse. What is clear is that for one reason or another Ukip representatives are far more direct and blunt in what they say than the we are used to hearing from mainstream politicians and the government. It also set the course for the day in its scathing assessment of Labour.
Steve Woolfe, the migration spokesman, had his audience applauding his every word with an excellent speech that stirred the faithful. He is an intelligent voice in the party and an advocate of free markets, lower flatter taxes and liberty. He stoked the enthusiasm of the hall by lauding Ukip as a positive movement that listened to the people. It was he who was tasked with delivering a firm line on immigration but with a far more moderate and positive tone that had been taken recently. He spoke about the “melting pot” that is “vibrant” modern Britain and celebrated Britain as “the most diverse, welcoming, tolerant and modern nation on the planet”. It was an attempt to move away from the regressive politics that seemed to portray Ukip as a party out of touch with modern British society, here was a mixed race Ukipper lauding the fact that Britain is diverse and “Ukip embraces this”. Then he re-announced the commitment to an Australian style points based system and pledged a further 2,500 border staff, stating the intention to gain back control of Britain’s borders. This is a policy that attracts many conservatives and will be music to the ears of the public. The Conservative journalist Tim Montgomerie later endorsed it at the IEA cost of living discussion, as a step in the right direction.
I rushed upstairs for the Cost of Living talk from the Institute of Economic Affairs, which I will not go into here as I plan to give a more detailed write up on this during the week (stay tuned). What was interesting however was my chat with a Tory councillor before the talk began. He was trying to keep a low profile but was checking out the conference with great interest. He was a Ukip sympathiser and he made it abundantly clear that he was far from alone in this. He commented on the contrast between the miserable atmosphere of the Labour conference, and they eye popping anger and bitterness of Labour delegates, with the positivity of the Ukip conference. What but it was interesting that this contrast was being picked up by so many different people. I asked him if he would be interested in a Tory-Ukip pact, and he informed me that this was already being widely discussed on a local level. He expects deals to be made behind the backs of the Tory leadership to try and keep the Labour Party out of power. Watch this space.
By far the most well received speeches of the day came from Tory defector Douglas Carswell and, unsurprisingly, the dear leader Nigel Farage. They often say about the religious that the recent converts are the most outwardly passionate and enthused, and so it seems with Douglas Carswell. He sounded like he’d been in Ukip for years already, attacking the political elite as a “private club” and declaring that “only Ukip can shake up the clique”. He attacked the EU as out of touch and taking democracy away from the people, facilitated by a distant elite that does not listen; “the governors should answer to the governed!”. It is obvious that Carswell is going to be a powerful force in the party and will be a clear contender for becoming the next leader. He informed the hall of the positive reaction of Clacton residents to his defection and tore into Matthew Parris and his “nasty article” that was symptomatic of the attitude of the whole Tory Party. He chastised this scornful dismissal of Clacton as “microcosm of how the elite governs this country” and vowed to break the “chumocracy” that had developed under “Blair, Brown and now Cameron”. Then came a line delivered with passionate fervour, directed at elitists like Matthew Parris, it inspired a huge cheer; “Clacton is as much part of Britain today as any street that you live!”.
If Carswell is to become a strong influence in Ukip, that can only be a good thing. With many pulling Ukip in the direction of conservative populism and seeking to attract old labour voters, here is a classical liberal voice with fresh ideas and a love of liberty, free markets and small government. Above all else he is overwhelmingly positive in his vision for Britain’s future as an outward looking country, he can help pull Ukip away from parochialism, negativity and its authoritarian streak. He lamented that in the UK “we seem to have forgotten what made us great” and declared that “we can leave the EU and prosper. He is a spokesman for the traditions of English constitutional liberty, free trade, localism and limited government; for me he represents the right path for Ukip to take.
It then came time for the leader’s speech. When he took to the stage everyone in the conference hall was on their feet clapping and cheering. His speech was tinged with the usual anti-elitism, anti-establishment lines but this time Farage focussed his aim on Labour. This was the culmination of a long day of Labour bashing. Clearly Ukip see little untapped potential in attracting disgruntled Conservatives, and are taking a political gamble on winning over frustrated old Labour voters. He attacked Labour’s “one party state” in the north, dismissed criticism of Ukip for speaking out over the Rotheram child abuse scandals; “if this isn’t political, I don’t know what is”. He said that the scandal was a “direct result of Labour national policy and political correctness”. The hall loved it, as did the people I spoke to immediately after the speech, it occurred to me that this speech, in fact the entire day, was more like a rally than a political conference.
Although Farage’s speech was a good one, as were that of several speakers, they are still only dressing up as a major party that could potentially govern. Farage made a joke that “oh, I forgot to talk about the deficit”, which got a lot of laughs but reminded me of how little had been said about the deficit throughout the day. The policies being proposed are now a lot more cautious, with the debt and deficit in mind, but much like at the Labour conference there was no clear commitments to spending cuts. Nothing was laid out about how the deficit would be brought down and where Ukip would cut spending. This is actually because they don’t need to say such things, they are not going to be in government. Clearly Ukip have matured as a party, but are not yet actually mature; crowd pleasers were plentiful, difficult decision were not.
Well, this is it, Ukip’s bold stand – they are setting about breaking up the Labour fiefdoms as a means of expanding their party, what connotations might this have? The idealogical struggle within Ukip has mostly been fought between the classical liberals and libertarians and the strong streak of conservative populism. You can now add to that a strange ‘revolt on the left’ of the party as they attempt to sway Labour voters. This has moved Ukip closer to the centre, and less radical on tax and spending cuts. As the party is pulled in different directions, the libertarian voices become diluted. On their website Ukip is described as a “libertarian party”, it is an identity I wish they would embrace, but if they are to do so, the libertarian voice will have to speak louder.