It’s conference session again and so a useful time to gauge where parties are at with their positions on the EU.
Labour’s leadership largely avoided the issue, mainly because of the continuing pressure from various factions to press for a referendum on membership. Given Miliband’s anticipation (justified or not) that he will be in Number 10 in seven months’ time, and his own pro-EU stance, that seems less and less likely to happen, especially the almost total absence of benefit from his pledge earlier in the year. Instead more interest was focused on UKIP, as the belated realisation that the latter takes plenty of Labour votes has started to come home to roost. Assorted commentators noted that fringe events on UKIP were both very explicitly about the party and also very busy. However, this morning’s comments suggest that there is still a lack of genuine understanding of UKIP by Labour, which in turn suggests that it will only be in the General Election that the lesson will be fully learned.
This brings us to UKIP itself.
The party’s track record on annual conferences is not a good one and the internal capacity to make a mess of things should not be underestimated, mainly because of the relatively small size of the party and the weakness of party management, rather than any individual failings. That David Cameron has now recalled Parliament to debate air strikes in Iraq is also unhelpful, although we should not see an active plot behind this, but rather a need not to mess up any voting (following the Syria debacle): Labour matters much more than UKIP in this, so the latter is effectively irrelevant, and the collateral damage to the conference is a side-effect rather than the purpose.
All the same, conference is a time to set out stalls, prepare for the General Election and generally motivate the rank-and-file.
The programme covers all the main areas of public policy and allows the new group of spokesmen to get some more media profile, although Nigel Farage has a slot on both days that will presumably be the focus of most commentators. Similarly, the growth of the fringe reflects both the links that the party has tried to build with like-minded organisations (e.g. Countryside Alliance and Bruges Group) and its efforts to increase its appeal to particular sections of society (there’s even a ‘Women in UKIP lunch’).
The objectives of the conference will have to be two-fold.
Firstly, the party has to demonstrate its value to voters. In large part, this is already done, as the framing of the party as a place for expressing discontent is well-established. Indeed, as one poll this week showed, knowledge of party policies is almost irrelevant, and it is the sensibility that matters. Farage is obviously central in this strategy.
However, there is a second strategic necessity, namely the need to prepare for the General Election and beyond. If we assume that the Clacton by-election next month goes UKIP’s way, then the party will no longer be one of potentialities but one of realities, in the sense that they will have representation in the Commons and will want to have something to show for it. Of course, a parliament that’s winding down for elections is not a good place for big impacts, especially when you’re the only representative of your party, even if you are Douglas Carswell, but the public will not be as accommodating as academics.
Carswell’s primary work will be about retaining his seat in May (which is more problematic), while Farage will have his own battle to fight in South Thanet and others will be trying to secure seats in other key seats such as Grimsby. Thus the party’s capacity to operate on multiple fronts simultaneously will be tested as never before. Many members are very new and local associations remain a work-in-progress in many cases, and even with the funding that the party can secure, it will find itself well behind others on this front.
As such, the conference this week also needs to be about moving from ‘aren’t the other lot all terrible’ to ‘this is what we are going to do about it’, i.e. a more positive programme.
And there’s the rub. The party still doesn’t have a clearly defined ideology – indeed, it probably can’t have one. As Carswell himself is likely to find, the party is not the libertarian place it claims to be, not least because it was drawn in members from across the political spectrum. Matt Goodwin has argued that this is side-stepped to a degree by UKIP’s role as a party of protest that transcends ideology, but this can’t be a lasting position: ultimately, it is not enough to just be protesting against things, but you have to come up with some kind of answer, especially if your key plan of attack is to get elected into the institutions that your enemies have misused. Misuse implies that there is a proper use.
UKIP has started on this. The spokesmen will eventually broaden out attention from Farage, although not much (consider the Greens, who did this much more aggressively a long time ago). The new manifesto will be much more digestible (not a high threshold on that one). The media operation will become slicker with the presence of people like Patrick O’Flynn. In short, the party will become more professional, more polished. More like the others.
Protest parties always have to walk this line: rage against the machine, or fight from within. There is no correct option in this, but the consequences will be significant.
By the end of the weekend, we should have a clearer idea of where UKIP’s heading.