As the Conservative Party gets into full swing after a shaky start, here are my concluding thoughts on the Ukip conference…
Saturday at the Ukip conference. On entering the hall I was immediately struck by the difference in atmosphere. There was a lot less hustle and bustle, fewer people, less noise and less energy in the air. Strange, I thought, it being a Saturday I had imagined more people would be able to make it. I walked up to the bar where Diane James and Roger Helmer were jovial in conversation over a coffee. No coffee for me, I’d already began drinking and it would be utter folly to stop at that point. I struck up a conversation with a kooky looking middle-aged fellow wearing one of those hideous purple ties. It was a mistake. I had simply wanted to ask a general question about how he felt the conference was going, what he liked about Ukip etc. Within minutes I’d been involuntarily drawn into a conversation about philosophy and how it should be applied to political thought. Aristotle and conservatism, oh no, please no. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love an intellectual conversation; in-fact, at an appropriate time, when I’m the appropriate mood, I thrive on them. This was not one of those times. I just couldn’t listen to him, my head felt numb and my stomach was hollow. It was too much for me, all I’d had to eat was like three fruit pastilles and some Scotch. I made my excuses and left.
I felt slightly deflated. What was I doing here? In Doncaster, on a Saturday day time? Is this really what my life had become? Rushing around the country to political conferences, late nights writing and musing about politics, propping myself up with chemical stimulants so I can stay the course? Apparently so, but why? I mulled this over as I sat outside smoking and sneakily belting scotch from a flask like some sad b-movie detective, oh well, I’m not in paper bag territory yet. I began eavesdropping on a nearby conversation, a local talking to two Londoners; they were slagging off the other parties and saying some rather rude things about Ed Miliband. Ah yes, that was it Ben, don’t be discouraged; you are doing this for a reason. I suddenly started to awaken, clarity returned to my mind; maybe it was the sun bursting out from the clouds, my hangover lifting, or the sudden recollection of the purpose of the day, though It was probably one of the vodka red bulls. In any case, I had regained my composure. I was here to continue my research into the most fascinating political development in decades, so often written off, so full of surprises, and now so difficult to pin down. The purple menace continues to defy definition.
On the Friday I had spoken to many different people from across the political spectrum, the majority were broadly right of centre; but many were more centrist, and a good few were to the left on issues such as the NHS. They were mostly white men and women (majority men) of 40+ years of age but I wouldn’t wish to understate what an interesting mix of people I had mingled with. The Young Independence members were there in numbers. I had come to the conference to try to pin down the party’s identity and find out where it might be going, but as I sat gathering my thoughts on the Saturday morning I found myself thinking that this political movement was somewhat confused. In my assessment of the first day at the conference, I discussed the curious development of a left wing populist element that had arose in the ranks. Surely this couldn’t last? Farage, the live and let live libertarian, has dressed himself up in several different sets of political clothes to further his cause, but isn’t about to become a social democrat, neither are the donors that fund the party. Still, It was startling to hear a Ukipper say:
“I know the top brass love Thatcher, you lot probably do too, but we fuckin’ ‘ate ‘er up here. Can’t bloody stand ‘er”
It’s a strange thing for a party led by a Thatcherite, to have members who think like this. It isn’t that I find the opinion that troubling, but the manner in which it was expressed was more typical of the left. Being from South Yorkshire, which is a bit of a wasteland in towns and villages that have never recovered from the mine closures, it is not surprising hatred of Margaret Thatcher is deeply engrained within him. Whether it is justifiable to blame de-industrialisation entirely on Thatcher is immaterial, that is the sacred conventional wisdom now. Whatever he thought of her, it had clearly not dampened his enthusiasm for Ukip.
I spoke to a great many people who criticised the Labour/Tory policy of allowing private contracts and outsourcing in the NHS, a group of people now being placated by drop to their knees and worship at the altar of our national religion. With a few policies now being used to woo Labour voters, it’s clear that If Ukip ever gets any real power and influence in government, there is surely a significant group of supporters who they will have to choose to placate of disappoint. You shape shift so easily when in power. I did speak to lots of former Tory voters, and they still make up a majority of the party.
Then there is the young contingent who were either too young to vote in the previous election or not politically involved at the time. I asked one young man passing by a few questions about himself. He was 21, had been a member for a year, and considered himself to be a libertarian. He had never supported any other party and was planning on sticking with Ukip in 2015 and beyond. I asked him if he thought that the libertarian elements of the party were being pushed to the fringes, both by the parties conservative populist urges and it’s new-found desire to attract parts of the old left. He agreed with me, but believed that there many people like him in Ukip and that they would have an increasing influence over time. “If you’re a libertarian, you should join Ukip,” was his parting comment.
I spoke to a group of Young Independence members, dressed in sharp suits with slicked back hair; these were the generation Y right-wingers, a fresh-faced coalition of libertarians, classical liberals and conservatives. These are exactly the kind of people that the Conservative Party needs to attract in huge numbers order to have a future, but here they were in Doncaster; committed Ukippers. They were full of praise for the party and for Farage, these were loyalists that would be difficult to pry away. They were attracted to Ukip because they want a party that stands for limited government, national sovereignty and liberty, but also shared concerns about EU integration, open borders, government spending and the national debt. It is a reminder of the principles that still make up the core identity of Ukip. Here is the future of the party, bound to eventually exert their influence and voice their desires.
As the election team kicks it up a notch, it will be working a fine balance between keeping this contingent happy, and its conservative base, while trying to infiltrate the Labour heartlands. It’s rather a difficult balancing act, but one possible for a non-governmental party. As I made my way back inside and, yes, back to the bar, I sat stood and indulged in people watching for several minutes. I was reminded of just how different this conference is to the Tory equivalent. The Conservative Party was once a mass movement, but now its conference is a corporate event for lobbyists and the media, it has nothing to do with ordinary party members who have no influence on their party. In-fact the Tory leadership, as has been widely discussed, have taken its membership for granted and shut them out. In Doncaster it felt far more like a groundswell of normal people, drawn to the conference by passion and the sense that they were part of something. Farage made it clear in his speech that he wants to “listen to the people” and his members believe him, rightly or wrongly, and feel an attachment to him that is in stark contrast to the resentment stewing the Conservative clubs across the country.
By winning popular support and the loyalty of its members, might Ukip be able to sell a right of centre political philosophy to a wider audience? It is remarkable to think that the Tories have not been able to convince the public to endorse their brand of conservatism and win a majority for 22 years, and that their decision to respond to the onslaught of Blairism by becoming New Labour in blue ties (otherwise known as “modernisation”) has seen their membership numbers plummet. While Ukip, a party whose core beliefs are identified on their website as “free trade, lower taxes, personal freedom and responsibility” along with the statement that “the state in Britain has become too large, too expensive and too dominant over civil society”, is growing in numbers. It is a curious political phenomenon, and it will be interesting to see how it continues to develop.
For now, Ukip are concentrating on positioning themselves as the opponents of the current political consensus and conveying their core principles. I sat in the conference halls to hear more about their policies but, as on Saturday, they were not dealing in details and specifics. It is clear that Ukip have only properly fleshed out one or two policies, designed to give an indicator of their beliefs. This conference marks a move onto far more moderate ground in areas where they used to be far more radical, there is a clear attempt to be more cautious and realistic. I heard Steven Woolfe say that Ukip “still has radicalism in its heart”, but that due to the economic situation they have to take small steps. Obviously it shouldn’t be forgotten that advocating secession from the EU, cutting links with ECHR and reforming the constitution, is already a radical programme for government. But the policies were vague enough to have a broad appeal, often low on detail and designed to portray ideas rather than offer a genuine, fleshed out, plan for governance. Here are some examples:
- NHS – Ukip are trying to neutralise Labour’s accusation that they want to privatise the health service. Louise Bours did this by shouting, if in doubt, shout, shout and shout again! Is apparently her motto. She reminded the hall that it was Labour that allowed the private sector into the NHS, pledged to invest in front line staff, and vowed to fight with the trade unions to prevent exempt NHS from the TTIP agreement. It was the usual fear of blasphemy that all political parties in Britain have. The best thing she said, or shouted, was that the vague intention to cut management and bureaucracy, and that visitors and migrants workers would require health insurance.
- Economy – Patrick O’Flynn set out his economic plan but it was overshadowed by the shambolic announcement of a 25% VAT rate on “luxury goods” that was apparently no longer official policy the following day. It was an O’Flynn policy designed to give a progressive streak to his taxation plan. He announced it onstage, discussed it at the IEA fringe event and it was reported in the papers. The next day Farage dismissed it as an idea that was “floated” but would never be adopted while he is the leader. It was all rather amateur, especially as the policy is still on the website The highlights were to raise the income tax threshold to the minimum wage, abolish inheritance tax and lower the higher rate to 35%; a tax cut offer matched by no other party. The intention was stated to move towards three rates set at 20, 30 and 40% in the future. On the subject of cuts and savings the detail was extremely thin, with only EU fees, the end of the Barnett formula and cuts to foreign aid being laid out.
- Criminal justice – Diane James laid out the plan to leave the jurisdiction of the ECHR, repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a bill of rights and opt out of the European Arrest Warrant.
- Welfare – Suzanne Evans announced that she would ‘axe the bedroom’ tax to applause, an easy bit of populism that matches Labour. In-fact much of the welfare policy is about matching the Tory and Labour offer: a crack down on benefit fraud, revive the contributory principle to the social security system, community schemes and workfare for unemployed claimants, reform of disability assessments and a limit on child benefit to two children. Evans also pledged to stop child benefit being paid to children who do not live in the UK, and go further than the other parties by imposing a five-year embargo on welfare payments to migrants.
- Education – Not much meat on the bones here, sound bites of conservative populism but scant detail. Extension of apprenticeships and more grammar schools are the doorstep policies.
- Migration – Steven Woolfe was at pains to move away from the tone of the debate taken in the Euro election campaign, celebrating the “diversity of modern Britain”. He stated a desire to have an immigration policy that doesn’t favour EU countries but is more open and non-discriminatory by nationality. Nonetheless, the policy is to have an Australian style points system and a reduction in immigration to a net figure of approximately 50,000. This is clearly not a libertarian policy, and not one to please the business sector, but it is popular with the public and the membership.
- Energy – Ah, Roger Helmer; an intelligent and articulate man, an asset until you get him on the subject of gays or the finer details of rape. Then its hide behind your hands time. Luckily he was simply talking about energy policy today. He wants to scrap the Climate Change Act, cut all green taxes, end subsidies for wind farms and get fracking, creating a sovereign wealth fund with the tax income. It is the Guardian’s worst nightmare, and I like it.
Beyond these areas there is little of interest; the transport policy was one of NIMBYism, with the key promise being to scrap HS2. Which, as Mark Littlewood has pointed out, will cost more than India spent to get to Mars. The housing policy consisted of lauding the countryside and promising to protect the green belt, prioritising brownfield sites to develop on. The vague populism of the housing policy was the last straw for me, I could listen to no more.
Towards mid afternoon I decided I wanted to leave immediately after Farage’s speech. Not long before I tweeted that “the Ukip conference is now dying on its arse”; it seemed it was to fizzle out with a whimper. Well, we know what happened next. The reaction of the hall to the defection of Mark Reckless was astonishing, and the way the whole mood lifted was truly extraordinary. Mark Reckless delivered a rousing and passionate speech that was lapped up by a reinvigorated conference. “UKIP UKIP UKIP UKIP!” They shouted, it was like being on the terraces at a cup match, it was a rally of a swelling movement rather than a conference of a political party. Reckless would late comment that it was like the Conservative conferences of old, like nothing he had seen since the 1980’s. When he concluded his speech with the line, “we are Ukip and we stand for more than being a star on someone else’s flag” the conference was ecstatic.
It was pure theatre orchestrated by Farage and ensured the conference went off with a bang while connecting with another body blow winding the Conservative Party. That was the moment that clinched it for me. Ukip is a major insurgency, that is for sure, but it is not yet a major party, as is made clear by the lack of detail in much of the manifesto. It is not a party with a serious programme for government, but a rebellion against the established political consensus. This is not necessarily as much of a withering put down as it sounds.
I personally do not believe that Ukip needs a comprehensive plan for government, there is not going to be a Ukip government in 2015; so a skeleton manifesto underpinned by their core principles and key pledges for constitutional reform, secession from the EU and lower taxes, is enough for the rise of the party to continue apace. It is still marks enormous progress from the regressive, and often downright laughable, 2010 manifesto. It is their primary ideas that will be pushed by any bothersome Ukip presence in the House of Commons post-2015, and their core principles that will be discussed on the door steps. Two things are clear to me; that this insurgency has not yet peaked and will continue to influence British politics and weaken the Tory Party, and that this is still a malleable movement with ideas and philosophies vying for influence. There are competing voices wanting to be heard, the future of this young party is still up for grabs by those with the determination to help shape it.