According to a whole range of media pundits when I arrived at Ukip’s South East England Regional Conference in Eastbourne a few days ago the hall should have been almost empty with just a few members wandering around all sad and miserable – dumbstruck by the massive Tory victory in the Newark by election last week… you know, the election where the Tories doubled their 16,000 majority and Ukip got even fewer than the 1,900 they won in 2010…

Well at least that was the view from Planet Torygraph. As far as Planet T was concerned the wheels had come off the UKIP juggernaut, the earthquake was now a squeak and purple was so… yesterday. Clearly the People’s Army was, like Bonaparte’s in 1812, fleeing the battlefield in chaos and confusion.

Yet when I stepped into the hall I found it packed out with nearly a thousand members and the whole place buzzing with excitement. Far from an air of despondency everyone was eager to prepare for next year’s General Election and listened intently as Nigel Farage outlined the leadership’s plan to target those  key constituencies where UKIP had done exceptionally well in the local and EU elections. They were also pleased to hear that between now and September the party would be putting the finishing touches to its 2015 election manifesto and that the responsibilities of presentation would be shared out between members of a larger “cabinet” with Farage himself more “primus inter pares” than the dominant voice he has been up to now.

We heard from new SE MEPs Diane James, Janice Atkinson and Ray Finch, people whose faces will become much more familiar as one part of this collegiate leadership cadre. Local councillors and party officials spoke about political issues, campaigning and branch organisation.

This was not a congress of the defeated – and why should it be? Those figures in the opening paragraph were figments of my imagination – just as the media’s interpretation of Newark was an expression of their wishful thinking. In this “safe” Tory constituency the Conservative majority was less than half the 2010 figure. UKIP’s share went up from 3% to 25%. They replaced Labour as the main opposition party and the Lib Dems evaporated. True we didn’t win the seat but away from the Cameron cheerleaders at the Telegraph and Spectator there was recognition that it was still a good result for Ukip.

But there was one thing missing at the conference – there wasn’t much “conferring”, little chance for the membership to give their own feedback and commentary on party issues. Behind each presentation there appeared to be an implication that things were being decided at a higher level and the membership’s role was to unquestioningly carry forward the banner of the manifesto into battle without query or discussion

Now for a party that rightly despises the Big Three for being top down structures controlled by an arrogant elite convinced that only they know “the truth” the absence of an opportunity for frank discussion and honest feedback at its  conferences is, in my view, a bit of an own goal.

At least we had the “lunch tables” at Eastbourne, each one hosted by someone in the party hierarchy and, hopefully, some of the tables saw a lively sharing of views but I think that an opportunity to break up into smaller groups with a moderator and a simple agenda at one point during the day could give future conferences a more inclusive dimension.

Alternatively (and probably, in terms of logistics, easier to implement) how about a series of Saturday “workshops” for members from a smaller geographical unit than a region (e.g Surrey/Sussex?). These would be useful tools, not just to canvass the views of members on issues like the spare room subsidy (aka bedroom tax), fracking, greenfield development etc but also for allowing strangers to get to know each other and for the party to gain a “feel” for what the membership is thinking. Some input from branch activists on local organisation, recruitment and campaigning could also be threaded into the programme.

Ukip 2014 appears to be a very different animal from its previous incarnations. It clearly has a much broader electoral appeal, particularly to working class voters. For the first time in its history there are possibilities of influence, even power, both locally and nationally. There are some members who appear uncomfortable with such developments and would maybe prefer to pursue a holy grail of “purity”. I suspect that most kippers, especially the thousands of us who have joined over the last two years are more interested in practicalities than the sniffing out of heresies.

Nevertheless a tolerance of healthy internal debate and the encouragement of bottom up feedback should be built into the very DNA of a populist party. It should never be regarded, however, as the type of PR based “listening” exercises frequently undertaken by the Tory party, an opportunity to “let off steam” where the conclusions are used to demonstrate how wonderfully open the organisation is – and where later those conclusions are quietly binned when all the fuss dies down.

So, how about it, Ukip? Let’s get the membership talking and the leadership listening – then we could truly describe ourselves as a grassroots party.

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