The perils of success for UKIP

The Christmas period was generally quite quiet in matters European, as most took an opportunity to gather themselves for what will be a busy year of European elections and the selection of new senior EU officials. UKIP was a partial confirmation of this. Just after Christmas, Nigel Farage made an announcement that caught a fair bit of media attention, both for its timing (everyone else was at home, eating turkey sandwiches) and its content. In it, Farage suggested that the UK should honour its commitments to the 1951 UN convention on refugees from Syria, offering places for them. The key quote was:

“I think refugees are a very different thing to economic migration and I think that this country should honour the spirit of the 1951 declaration on refugee status. It was agreed with the UN and even through the European court, which sadly has changed its role. But the original ideas of defining what a refugee is were good ones. I think actually there is a responsibility on all of us in the free west to try and help some of those people in Syria fleeing in fear of their lives.”

Given the government’s unwillingness to offer such places (largely because of the tightening debate on immigration), this was a bit of a masterstroke, since it made the government look heartless, and UKIP look more reasonable, even if it does come almost three years after the start of the Syrian civil war.

The interesting part came after the announcement. Within a day, clarifications were presented, again by Farage, to the effect that this offer should only be extended to Christians from Syria, since they had nowhere else to go in the region.

This change in stance was created by internal party pressure, it seems clear. With the huge focus and effort given to challenging the introduction of full free movement to Bulgarian and Romanian citizens on 1st January, the party appeared unwilling to compromise that by sending out more nuanced positions that might confuse voters, especially given the success that this policy has had to date.

Just as interesting was that Farage backed down. This gives us a more subtle picture of the power hierarchy in the party then the conventional one, which places Farage above any kind of constraint. It’s important not to get too carried away by this, since the issue of Syrian refugees is is relatively unimportant to UKIP and since it is likely that the initial announcement wouldn’t have been exposed to the normal clearance process, because of the holidays.

This all puts me once again in mind of the research by Adebi and Lundburg which highlighted the structural organisational problems that UKIP faces. It’s very open and counter-weighted governance is nominally very democratic, but in a situation of relatively few people with the appropriate skill sets, it becomes a vehicle for ‘novice ideologues’ and those who pursue more narrow agendas. This in turn creates a tension between those who take a more pragmatic line to power/influence and those who hold a more purist interpretation (as I discuss in my own work).

Even though UKIP has continued to grow (to 30,000 by latest accounts), this is still relatively small for the organisational structure (especially local associations) that it continues to build, and so the problem persists. In particular, the perennial problem of entryist elements from the far-right causes many problems for the leadership, which has consistently pushed them back. However, as the Christmas episode shows, the depth of feeling amongst members is strong and even a well-positioned leader like Farage cannot contain that at all times.

This is made all the more interesting by the increased chatter around Farage himself, in the wake of the Bloom affair, which made much more public the previously half-hidden mutterings about his longer-term game plan, and particularly his relations with the Conservative party. The Syria incident prompted a long discussion piece in the Telegraph by Paul Goodman that captures this well.

2014 is going to be a vital year for UKIP in the sense that it will show whether it is able to break out of its historic path. That path has been one of success in EP elections, followed by some form of collapse in its wake. Not 1999, 2004 nor 2009’s successes translated into national breakthroughs. Even last year’s success in local elections needs to be repeated. That UKIP will take first place in May in EP seats is not much in doubt, nor another round of local council seats too. But as the party moves into campaigning for the 2015 general election then it will become clear how far Farage’s project has come.

If that looks like it isn’t going to pay off, then Farage would be in a strong position vis-a-vis the Tories to make a pact and retreat to the Lords. That choice will tell us not only about Farage, but also about UKIP’s structural integrity and about the anti-EU movement in the UK. Given that we’re likely to hear much more about an EU referendum in the next 18 months, that has consequences for all of the EU too.