It’s autumn apparently, which means party conference season is almost upon us. Hence it was slightly less surprising to see Nigel Farage beaming out of the morning papers today (Guardian and Telegraph).
Less surprising because UKIP has had a good summer, polling well (and often above the LibDems) and benefiting from the unwillingness of other parties’ leaderships (if not backbenches) to discuss the EU and from the general malaise around politics as a whole. Their strong European election performances will doubtless continue in 2014 and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they increase their votes in a general election.
However, the boosterish statements from Farage and the game-changing pronouncements from newspaper commentators need to be taken with a pinch of salt: the party is confronted by a number of fundamental handicaps.
Firstly, the public simply isn’t focused on the EU to anything like the same extent as bread-and-butter issues like the economy, health and education. Even immigration, the other big area of UKIP’s profile, isn’t quite the heat topic it was in recent years.
Secondly, the party lacks a positive ideological core. Its scepticism about the EU is a negative, a dislike, rather than a coherent plan of action. Its other policies are most generously described as pragmatic populism, predicated primarily on a vast unleashing on economic and fiscal potential by withdrawing from the EU: it is not the programme of a party that is positioning itself as regierungsfaehig.
Thirdly, UKIP lacks depth of resources. While this week’s fine of Farage for his comments about van Rompuy will not break the bank in the way that the Electoral Commission nearly did last year, it still highlights the relative scarcity of income streams. In addition, the party has not developed a wider cadre of leaders and organisers beyond Farage. This hampers their performance in the more organisationally-decentralised elections for the Commons.
In short, they confront the same issues as the Greens and other protest or anti-system parties before them: how to break into the mainstream. Without the European Parliament it is hard to see how the party could have survived at all, but that platform is clearly insufficient to let it achieve its aims. But the Brighton strategy employed by the Greens in 2010 does not seem to be open to them, having failed to find a locale that has sufficient depth of support to underpin a realistic bid to win a Westminister seat.
If UKIP is to overcome these barriers, then the next couple of years will be vital, in maintaining momentum, in build support and resources and in moving away from their self-positioning as outsiders. That will come at a cost to the party’s identity and no one knows if they are ready to pay it.