Fings ain’t what they used to be: Changing UKIP

So we now have most of the major manifestos for the General Election. None of them Рpossibly bar the LibDems Р give me much cause to change my mind about the continuing failure of British politicians to talk about the detail of European integration.

UKIP’s effort – released today – is a case in point. On one hand, it’s very clear that it thinks the UK should leave the EU, but on the other – as noted by FleetStreetFox – they want to retain a whole pile of policy areas that they think are beneficial. Such a position is very much that of Boris Johnson on cake.

But the more interesting point that I’ve taken from the manifesto is the continuing evolution of UKIP as a party.

I’ve been interested in the party almost as long as it’s been in existence: I seem to recall writing about them for my Masters dissertation back in the mid-1990s. As such, I’ve witnessed quite closely how things have changed. And change they have.

My interest comes from their euroscepticism: in the early days that meant I was interesting in everything that the party did, since it did nothing but oppose the EU. It’s one original policy was to contest European elections, then not take those seats, but instead to provoke a constitutional crisis that would in turn cause the UK to leave. Not a sensible plan, but a simple one.

This only lasted until the departure/ejection of the party’s founder, Alan Sked – a man you’ll be hearing from over the next few weeks as he tells you why you shouldn’t vote UKIP – whereupon the policy switched to taking up EP seats, and using them to secure funds, gain inside information and use it to forment further euroscepticism (I paraphrase slightly).

It was only in the early 2000s that the party really began to develop other policies. Immigration – which has become the central policy plank – started as an issue in the wake of the 2004 EU enlargement.

But even five years ago, the party wasn’t really about policies, but about disgruntlement: recall the Nigel Farage disowned the 2010 manifesto last year as ‘drivel’. It was indeed a poorly conceived and articulated document, with stuff thrown in willy-nilly (I paraphrase even more slightly than before) and no-one really cared about it.

Today we have a real contrast. A much more profession document – pace some photoshopping – with independent costings and a lot more focus on constructive policies. Strikingly, UKIP policy on the EU is withdrawal after a referendum, i.e. even the election of a UKIP government wouldn’t necessarily secure exit from the EU. This reads very much as a gambit for a party that it looking to join a coalition (hence also the softening of Farage’s line on Cameron as Tory party leader).

In short, UKIP now looks much more like a normal political party.

And that’s a problem, for two reasons.

Firstly, a key part of the party’s appeal has been its heterodox approach: ‘common sense politics’, ‘not like the others’, etc. Farage is the consummate non-politician, despite being a classic politician in so many ways. Becoming more normal thus comes with a clear potential of costing the party some of its vote, especially those who are disaffected with politics.

Secondly, it further exposes the lack of ideological consistency within the party. Common sense is all well and good, but what basis does the party decide its policies? Again, the tension between the libertarians (essentially Carswell and Reckless, with Farage and a few others leaning that way) and the non-libertarians (coming from across the political spectrum) remains. Regardless of whether Farage is able to retain the leadership, this will be a critical debate post-election for the party. That Reckless has been almost invisible in the party campaign to date suggests that the personality politics also remain a problem/challenge.

Some commentators have talked about the election as a staging post for UKIP: using a strong showing to build for 2020. However, for that to work, the party will have to continue to evolve, in rather significant ways. A year ago, I doubted if that was possible. UKIP has struggled with leadership challenges before, but never under quite the spotlight that it has been so successful in courting.