UKIP’s move from pressure group to full blown political party presents challenges for both its leadership and membership.

By Oliver Ford

A sense of vindication and excitement seemed to characterise UKIP’s public meeting in Telford, Shropshire last week, with the attendees’ growing realisation that the party’s founding policy standpoints (opposition to both the E.U. and large scale immigration) are becoming the emerging central themes of the upcoming election cycle. A cycle which promises major success for UKIP.

The event, the first in a series of public meetings planned in the run up to the European elections, featured a series of short speeches by the party’s leadership, including Nigel Farage and Deputy Leader Paul Nuttall, followed by a question and answer session. The aim of the meeting seemed to be an attempt to both rally existing supporters, and simultaneously bring new members on board – goals in which the event generally succeeded, with attendees impressed with what the leadership had to say, particularly, of course, when it came immigration and Europe.

Despite this, the gathering also gave evidence to the widening gap between UKIP’s leadership and its rank and file membership, as the grouping attempts to demonstrate its maturity and credibility in the face of persistent accusations of racism.

This was felt particularly at the event when Farage stated that he wanted Britian to remain an ‘open… trading’  nation – a comment aimed at assuring newcomers to the UKIP fold that it was not a party of ‘Little Englanders’; but which seemed to hang over the audience in awkward silence. Similarly, a question tabled by an audience member asking the leadership to clarify UKIP’s stance towards abortion was met with squirms – the panel unwilling to give the hard line stance that was presumably sought by the audience member.

Many of UKIP’s older standing problems were also on display throughout the night. The audience was almost exclusively 50+ and white – doing little to dispel the view that UKIP is a party only for white middle aged folk. If the party hopes to move on, it will have to attract a wider demographic. Signs of UKIP’s usual internal bickering and disorganisation were also evident, with a counsellor from Tamworth cheerfully stating that there would be ‘fireworks’ at the behind closed doors policy meeting that was to follow the public gathering.

However, all this cannot be used to be used to deny what is apparent – that UKIP is a party in the ascendency. At times during the evening, the excitement at this fact was palpable, particularly when Farage was greeted onto the stage with enthusiastic applause. This enthusiasm was matched by Farage’s impressive ambitions for the party, comparing UKIP’s opposition to wind farms to Peel’s opposition to the Corn Laws, and bluntly stating that his aim for the 2015 General Election was for UKIP to win a Westminster seat. If Farage can confront the party’s traditional problems, and simultaneously keep the party members on side, then such an aim does not seem overly ambitious.

Eggs, Ed, and the Decline of the Political Party

By Oliver Ford

Ed Miliband’s rare entrance into the headlines last week may have been viewed as an achievement by the Labour leader (in what otherwise has seemed to have been a self-imposed media blackout over the summer) were it not for the fact that this feat was achieved as a result of being pelted with an egg by a disgruntled member of the public. The pictures of the incident, which inspired intermingling feelings of amusement, pity, and scorn, were only minutes after the event to be found on Twitter, posted and viewed by the politically detached and cynical British Generation Y. As well as providing amusement, however, Ed’s ‘egging’ also seems to be the perfect example of the huge and increasing divide between the major political parties and the public that has characterised British politics of the 21st century so far, a divide which threatens a terminal decline of the traditional party model in the UK.

On one level, the assault demonstrates the sheer contempt that much of the public now holds for the perceived ‘elitist’ and remote political class that dominates the leadership of both major political parties. This is particularly true of Ed Miliband, (being pelted whilst on a visit to a ‘typical’ London market, seemingly on a desperate mission to exhibit his affinity with the ‘average’ person) who, being born into an academic and political family, was sped through Oxbridge and into a job as a ‘researcher’ before rising to the top of the party that perversely claims to have the interests of the average working man at its heart. Of course, the same is also true of both David Cameron and Nick Clegg (as well as a multitude of other Cabinet members), both of whom have followed an unsurprisingly similar career path to that of Ed Miliband. This wholesale detachment of political parties and their leaders from the very public they claim to represent has resulted in a de-humanization of Britain’s political life – from Miliband’s elitist and careerist view, voters become ‘target demographics’ and people’s worries and fears become ‘issue trends’, Miliband himself never having experienced a life comparable to that of most of the electorate. This dehumanization then serves to alienate the political class more, with politicians retreating into their own worlds of spin doctors and polls – fuelling the public’s hostility to mainstream politics even further. The effects of this elitism and resultant disillusionment are easy to see, particularly with the electoral decline of the two major parties – the Labour and the Conservatives Party’s combined vote falling from 86% in 1945 to 65% in 2011. UKIP’s recent rise in this context can also be explained – with leader Nigel Farage’s personable and grounded persona, as well as more ordinary background (never having attended university) being a key factor in the party’s rise. The divide between an increasingly irate and detached public (demonstrated by Ed Miliband’s egging) and an increasingly isolated political class is therefore both a symptom and a cause of the decline of political parties in Britain; with the ‘distance’ between politicians and the public turning so many away from mainstream politics, a ‘distance’ which only increases as fewer and fewer ‘normal’ people have an input in the running of the major parties.

The perpetrator of the egging himself offers reasons for the decline of the political party. In stating that Labour ‘does nothing’ for the poor, Dean Porter is expressing an opinion that many in the country of different political views now hold – that the major parties have become too ideologically similar, and in many aspects are the same. In Dean Porter’s case, this probably means Miliband has not done enough reverse Labour’s right-ward lurch towards the political centre under Blair (Miliband’s early characterisation as a dangerous radical – ‘Red Ed’ – now seems cruelly ironic); similarly, the Conservative’s base of support has been left feeling alienated by many of Cameron’s liberal centrist policies such as the legalisation of gay marriage and maintenance of the international aid budget amidst widespread cuts. This convergence of policy and ideology at the centre of the political spectrum is a consequence of the elitism and detachment described before, with the secession of the country’s political leadership from the rest of society meaning that parties have drifted from their traditional bases of support, attempting to find a near mythical vote winning ‘centre ground’. This search for a neutral centre ground, seems, however to be self defeating, because in looking for this centre ground, parties become more and more alike, antagonising the public even more, losing votes, and so contributing to their own decline.

However, the merging of Britain’s political parties into an indistinguishable centrist mass (demonstrated well by Miliband’s directionless leadership of the Labour Party) is more than another symptom of elitism – it is in itself an example of and reason for the decline of the political party, for if the major parties are no longer to take clear and consistent positions on a range of economic and social issues, what is the point in them at all? The recent successes of groups that take a more definite position on the political spectrum display the dangers that major parties face in failing to define and clarify their ideological standpoints – with George Galloway’s left wing Respect Party winning the 2012 Bradford West by election and the decidedly right wing UKIP now regularly polling over 10%. In fighting over the same narrow stretch of centre ground, and in doing so acknowledging that winning elections is now more important that maintaining ideological integrity, the UK’s main political parties seem to be committing collective suicide.

Of course, the death knell of the traditional political party has not been sounded just yet – traditional ‘bread and butter’ economic issues that have arisen with the financial crisis and ensuing squeeze on living standards may yet invigorate Labour and the Conservatives. The party structure has also not yet fully been discredited; with parties such as UKIP thriving with burgeoning memberships, the current malaise may only be affecting the tired and lethargic Conservative and Labour parties. There will also be those who will rejoice at the decline of traditional parties, viewing them as cumbersome anachronisms unable to serve Britain’s fluid modern society. On many occasions, traditional party politics on both sides of the political spectrum have failed the country – one only need only look to the dysfunctional 1970s to see the dangers of dogmatic machine politics.

However, despite this, ever since the work of political philosopher Edmund Burke in the 18th century, it has been accepted that in order to hold the executive to account and form functional governments, well organised and disciplined political parties are required; if this need can be combined with a more open, receptive and flexible but simultaneously principled and meaningful party system, perhaps Ed Miliband and the rest won’t remain such inviting targets for egg throwers.

No to referenda

By Alex Bryan

First the Conservatives, then Labour, now finally, it seems, the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg’s statement in PMQ’s on Wednesday that it is a matter of ‘when not if’ a referendum is held on Britain’s membership of the European Union signals the beginning of a three-party consensus that a referendum on Europe is necessary. Considering the age-old Europhilic tendencies of the party, this demonstrates how much support and influence UKIP now wield.

As well as the rise of UKIP, it also signals the rise of something else which the Lib Dems have been altogether more keen on; referenda. Since the ascension of New Labour in 1997, Britain has changed from being a country which had only had one referendum in its entire history to being one in which referenda are becoming an almost common phenomena. Though we have only had one national referendum since 1997 (on the Alternative Vote), the calls for a referendum on the EU and Scottish independence show that they are becoming a part of the national political fabric.

The attractions of calling for a referendum are, from the politicians perspective, clear. ‘Giving the people a vote’ will never be seen as an unpopular stance, and will almost certainly be lauded as ‘democratic’, whilst simultaneously casting anyone who dares to disagree as ‘undemocratic’ or elitist. This should be a worry for those concerned with the health of British politics. The fact that referenda are now seen as a plausible possibility on controversial issues means that politicians can manipulate political opinion in order to suit their political agenda hugely.

Take Europe for example; it is no coincidence that it is the Conservatives and UKIP who are most vocal in their support for a referendum, as it is they who have public opinion on their side. As Labour found out with the ill-fated North Yorkshire devolution referendums in 2004, a referendum lost is an embarrassment. Therefore politicians will only pressure for a referendum on an issue they know that they are winning on.

This is not a good thing. For one thing, issues such as EU membership are hugely complex and shadowed by conjecture and falsehoods. They are immensely important for the future of our nation. They are, essentially, exactly the kind of issues which we elect with politicians to deal with. We devolve some of our democratic powers to parliament and the government in the hope that they, as qualified, full-time politicians, will be able to conduct hearings and make policy on important issues better than we would.

Again, take the EU. This is a subject as controversial as it is possible to be. Proponents of referendums say that, come election day, the public education programme and campaigning preceding it will ensure that the public is informed enough to cast a ballot. But when it comes to the EU, very few people know the figures. Nigel Farage might bang on about membership fees but in reality the economic benefits or costs of EU membership are impossible to calculate. By the time election day comes round, the campaigning will simply have affirmed existing prejudices. On an issue as complex as EU membership, most people will not have the time or the information to do any research into the issue, and will cast their vote based on the statistics and opinions they read in the newspapers, the vast majority of which are anti-EU. It is not elitist to say that in the modern world, where democracy is seen as the state getting out of your way rather than direct participation in the political system, it is not elitist to say this: it is simply realistic.

More important than any individual bad decision however are the long-term implications of referendums on the public’s views on politicians. If politicians begin regularly abdicating the biggest decisions, then it will no longer be seen as important whether they can handle the big decisions, as they will be making fewer of them. A public which already views politicians with contempt will begin to see them as dispensable.

There is a case to be made for the claim that the public does not have enough say on governance, that one vote every five years is nowhere near sufficient. But a functioning democratic system must be constitutionally consistent. If the appetite for referendums is the appetite for increased public involvement, then there are other more effective avenues which lead to that. To attempt to invoke ‘the will of the people’ on an ad hoc basis is dangerous, and has little to do with what the public actually wants. It’s not about public involvement. It is a political power play, designed to render the opponent impotent, and it is a device of which we should be increasingly wary.   L

The problem is not Europe, it’s the European Union

By Alex Bryan

Attempting to halt the disturbing rise of UKIP in opinion polls, David Cameron is set to give a speech later this month in which he will set himself up as someone wanting ‘real change’ in the relationship between Britain and the European Union. Predictably, this had led to sceptical commentary from euro-sceptic pundits , claiming that even if Cameron does starting walking the walk, the talk is still far from forthcoming.

One of the possible outcomes of UKIPs rise to a position of mainstream political credibility is that a deal will be formed between UKIP and the Conservatives whereby UKIP do not run any candidates in the general election in exchange for the Conservatives enacting UKIP’s central policy.

The increasing anti-EU sentiment makes many feel like an in-out referendum is the only option. Conservatives rally against the restrictions the EU brings with it – the working time directive, European Court of Human Rights, unrestricted labour movement and the need for Parliament to comply with EU Laws. Liberals and those on the left are quieter about the flaws of Europe, but from a left-wing perspective there are clearly some problems. The imposition of austerity on Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal when the people were clearly opposed suggests that the EU is intent on implementing a centre-right fiscal strategy. Nothing that the IMF or the ECB has done in the years since the financial crisis has done anything to dispel this notion.

The trouble with both of these arguments is that they will simply be opposed by the contrary political position. For liberals, the working time directive and the human rights act are two of the best pieces of EU legislation, and Conservatives fear the impact of populist fiscal policy around Europe. But clearly there is a problem with the European Union. One does not have to subscribe to a Hobbessian notion of sovereignty to think that the EU’s undemocratic structure is a problem, one simply has to believe in democracy. This is the attraction of UKIP’s argument.

One thing that has not really been commented on, but is of vital importance, is the semantic practices around the EU. More often than not, we refer to it as ‘Europe’. This is worth commenting on, because it is crucial to note that the EU is not synonymous with Europe, neither is it the only possibility for a European political project. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the EU is that it is essentially immune from revolt or revolution. Riots in Athens have had no effect on the IMF/Greek fiscal policy. When accountability is lost in a legislative ad bureaucratic labyrinth, who exactly is meant to revolt?

The essential problem with the notion of an in-out debate is that it ascribes these problems to ‘Europe’ rather than ‘the European Union’. It suggests that being out of the European Union means cutting the string irreparably and launching for Ellis Island. The point needs to be made that just because the European Union is an anti-democratic, restrictive, quasi- tyrannical relic of the cold war era does not mean that a new European project can never be launched with different ideals and principles.  Indeed, it would have to be. The age of nations being able to dominate (or even compete) on their own terms within the international community is gone. The terms these days are ‘co-operate or bust’. Unfortunately, the European Union seems to be drifting into a Kafka-esque state of eternal confusion and dehumanisation. This need not be the fate of Europe. Whether it would be more effective to fight for a better European project from inside or outside the EU is a question no one knows the answer to. The frightening thing is that few seem to be asking the question. 

It will be difficult for the Tories to win in 2015 without UKIP; with them, it would be impossible

The rise of UKIP has mean talk of a pact with the Conservatives has increased, but who would it be beneficial for? (C) Euro Realist Newsletter

By Alex Bryan

Ever since UKIP emerged as a credible political party under the tutelage of Nigel Farage, talk of some kind of agreement or pact with the Conservative party has never been far from the lips of columnists. It is only recently however that both sides have begun to speak of such a possibility in a serious way. Michael Fabricant MP, Conservative vice-chair for Parliamentary Campaigning said this week that he would like to have a ‘discussion’ with UKIP. The most popular suggestion for an arrangement between the parties appears to be an agreement that UKIP will not run in the 2015 election, and that in exchange there will be an in-out referendum on the EU.

Nigel Farage has immediately distanced himself from such talk, saying that ‘it’s war’ between the two parties. However, considering the current popularity of UKIP (specifically amongst disillusioned Conservative voters), Farage has no need currently to publically say that such an option is on the table.

As the election draws closer though, it would be no surprise if UKIP hands begin to twitch. For all the talk of the rise of UKIP from laughing stock to serious party, they are still polling in single figures. The chance of them gaining a significant number of seats is small. They are also dependent upon the continuation of the Eurozone crisis in order to maintain their popularity; while Greece will not be stable by 2015, it may well be by 2020. The perfect storm has been raging for 5 years, yet UKIP are still a minor party. It will not rage much longer, and the party must face reality. An alliance of some kind with the Conservative party is their best chance of achieving their central policy.

So what of the Conservatives? As polls show Labour 11 points ahead, as the economy continues to flag, as the boundary review is thrown into the long grass and as ‘omnishambles’ is named word of the year, an increasing number of commentators are beginning to wonder whether the Conservatives can hope to beat Labour without UKIP. Indeed, the combined total of Conservative and UKIP polling figures suggests an alliance would significantly narrow the difference of popularity between the two parties.

Despite this, it would be a grave mistake for the Conservative party to make an alliance with UKIP in the next election. Though the polling gap between Labour and the Conservatives becomes tantalisingly close once the UKIP vote is added to the existing Tory total, this does not mirror reality. There are a significant number of Conservative voters who used to vote for Labour when Tony Blair was leader, and this demographic would be immediately turned off by a pact. UKIP’s Euro-scepticism may be a policy which many agree with, but it must be remembered how radically right-wing many of their domestic and social policies are, particularly on law and order and defence.

By agreeing to any pact with UKIP, the Conservatives would immediately be seen as endorsing some of the same domestic policies as UKIP. It has become fashionable for some conservative commentators to suggest that the way for the Conservatives to win the next election is to emphasise traditionally conservative policies – in effect, to more to the right. However, to do this would be to make the same mistake that the Republicans made in the U.S. elections. The Conservative party must remember why they do not have the same policies as UKIP – because the British public at large is no longer supportive of such policies.

As a political entity, the Conservative party is the most enduring force in Britain. Part of the reason for this is that it has shifted as popular opinion has. To attempt to gain a parliamentary majority by making a pact with UKIP would not only be unsuccessful, but would also show a highly inaccurate analysis of the political climate. The best chance the party has of winning in 2015 is by concentrating on discrediting Ed Miliband and Ed Balls and on the economy. The more the Conservative party flirts with UKIP, the further it gets from a majority.

The success of UKIP could be bad news for LGBT rights

With UKIP seemingly gaining momentum in their battle to become the nation’s third party, could their record on LGBT rights derail them? (C) Ian Roberts

By Lucy Browett

 This week’s by-elections have revealed a dangerous, growing popularity for UKIP.  Well, almost certainly dangerous if you are part of the LGBT community. As Labour retained Manchester Central and Cardiff South & Penarth, they won Corby by a swing of almost 13%. If this wasn’t satisfying enough for Labour, they also revelled in the fact that the Conservatives were extremely close to coming fourth in the Manchester Central results, beating UKIP by a mere 5 votes. In Corby especially, the rise of UKIP is evident as they received 14.3% of votes. While many may view UKIP as a desirable party to lead Britain out of economic difficulties, for the lives of LGBT citizens, UKIP influence on the House of Commons and the general public would have a detrimental effect.

In a statement released this week on UKIP’s website, the party reinforces its opposition to equal marriage rights, describing it as “not a burning issue” and that “it is not a matter which animates the daily discourse of the nation”. UKIP has previously described proposed equal marriage legislation as “picking a fight” with religious organisations.

To view the issue of equal marriage as unimportant and as if it is not a subject of campaigns (such as Out4Marriage), discussions and protests all around the country is ludicrous. It begs the question of whether UKIP are aware of what the real “burning issues” are, after so boldly stating that equal marriage is not one of them. On a daily basis, individuals’ minds may not be plagued with the thought that it is not currently legal for them to marry someone of the same sex. However, UKIP fail to take into account the long-term same-sex couples who would like to, but cannot, enter into exactly the same legal agreement as other adults in monogamous relationships can due to the current law. To me, and many others, that is enough of a “burning issue”.

Aside from matters of marriage, UKIP MEPs have expressed personal beliefs that equate to downright bigotry. Earlier this year, Roger Helmer MEP made comments including a tweet questioning “Why is it OK for a surgeon to perform a sex-change operation, but not OK for a psychiatrist to try to ‘turn’ a consenting homosexual?” He also asked in a blog post, “If two men have a right to marry, how can we deny the same right to two siblings?” These comments were followed in April this year by UKIP Oxford city council hopeful Dr Julia Gasper, who said that gay people should “stop complaining and start thanking straight people”, in relation to another comment in which she stated that “homosexuals are completely dependant on heterosexuals to create them”.

UKIP and its members cannot still be holding these opinions and prejudices if they realistically want to surpass the Liberal Democrats as “the third party”, as they often inform their members they are well on the way to doing. They need to consider policies to reduce LGBT discrimination in the UK instead of pandering to the ex-Conservative members who were not happy with socially liberal David Cameron. It is the 21st century and countries all around the world are passing anti-discriminatory legislation which gives rights to LGBT people and activists are opposing legislation which doesn’t. UKIP must consider the minority it has hastily overlooked.

Local Elections 2012: a powerful blow from an effective opposition, or a voter-toxic Coalition?

Image

c/o NevilleHobson

By Luke Prescott

The local elections in England, Scotland and Wales have seen huge gains for the Labour party. Indeed, if mirrored in a general election vote Labour would have a comfortable majority, with Labour taking 38%, the Tories on 31% and the Lib Dems 16%. Big gains across swing seats in the South and Midlands illustrate that Labour and Ed Miliband are making the required headway into the seats that decide elections; even in Cameron’s own backyard.

So, is Ed Miliband leading Labour back to power for 2015 with an effective opposition? Not exactly; the current government is an opposition in itself and does not require a formal opposition to sit in Parliament alongside it. Cameron and Clegg (along with their lieutenants) wage war with each other on a number of issues (like the AV referendum) and have been doing so for some time. The beleaguered and delayed reform of the House of Lords is likely to give way to more open disagreement between the PM and Deputy PM.

The infighting of the Coalition is not going away, for both parties’, it useful in distinguishing themselves as each Party proves toxic to their opposite party’s core voters. This provides breathing space for Labour, as the Coalition partners save the most visceral of attacks for one another. Such an atmosphere is new to the opposition, and Ed Miliband needs to seize the opportunity to run a clean campaign in the run up to the general election.

Whilst the Lib Dems bleed the Tories by seemingly tying them down to the centre ground, and the Lib Dems haemorrhage voters, Miliband can concentrate, not on attacks, but on saving the NHS and tangible plans to nurture the economy back to health. Tory MP Gary Streeter has suggested that the Conservative party faithful are ”gagging” for the government to veer right on domestic issues traditionally seen to be in the Tory backyard, such as law and order, and the police. These credentials have been damaged of late; the cuts to police forces are seemingly to blame for the riots spreading around London, and the rest of the country.

Not only domestic issues, but the rise of UKIP (securing around 13% of votes where it fielded candidates) is also an inevitable source of tension. UKIP have seized the EU vacuum. Pressure has mounted on Cameron from influential elements of the Tory party to renegotiate and repatriate powers from the EU before the next election.

The pressure to veer right on domestic issues, such as the upcoming Lords Reform and Tory backbenchers eager for a Euro-showdown, will lead to disarray in the Coalition in the lead up to 2015. Ed Miliband has two roles in opposition: to derail the current Government, and then to promote his own. With one of these responsibilities taken care of already, Labour can concentrate on portraying themselves as the natural successors of the beleaguered Coalition in 2015. A positively run campaign will distinguish Labour and Ed Miliband from the pack, as voters shun austerity and hardship for a more optimistic vision.

However, a pit fall may come in the danger of losing national focus. The major legislative debates over the coming years will lead to inter-coalition battles and the media will continue to feed into the idea of a strained marriage between two coalition partners, seemingly putting on a brave face for the kids. Ed Miliband and Labour will struggle to be heard at times, and a danger is that at the next election they may look like the kid at a wedding, struggling to find a seat at the grown up’s table.

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