Now that we are entering yet another new era – new leader, logo, electronic voting (watch this space) – it seems to me that it would be a good idea to look at some of the historical fault-lines that have consistently troubled the party, with the POV (point of view) that hopefully repetition may be avoided in the future (I’m being optimistic, here!).
I stress at the outset that I am not promoting one side over the other – all views discussed here have their respective merits, and I can usually (hello, Lechlade!) see both sides.
Broadly speaking, most big arguments/ debates in UKIP have broken down into the following areas:
- London vs. elsewhere.
- Standing (or not) against Tories.
- What Nigel wants?
- Leader vs. NEC.
- EU Funding (PEPPs etc.)
These can, and have, in the past manifested either singly, or in combination, and I think it may be useful to newcomers, to give some signposts as to what to try and avoid going forward.
Leader vs. NEC has already been discussed (here) in the context of the constitution and governance, and new readers are welcome to revisit, if curious.
London-centric debates arose from the earliest days. Most of us were in commuting distance. Alan Sked, our founder, had an office at the LSE, its lecture hall in Great Peter St. was handy for conferences – as was Methodist Central Hall and the Emmanuel Centre – and HQ was an attic in the Quadrant, Regent St. Happy days! The problem was that we were inevitably short of (unpaid volunteer) staff and resources (printers, photocopiers etc.), even after we moved across the road into bigger premises (twice!).
Michael Holmes, a successful businessman in publishing, on taking the leadership, had another idea: relocate the “data processing” part of operations to his massive HQ in Salisbury (I’ve been there, and was suitably impressed). He had the kit and volunteers, as well as the ego, but this meant moving operational control away from London, and as the NEC then were largely London-centric, a row was brewing.
Nowadays, after spells in Birmingham, courtesy Mike Nattrass, and the expansion of the South West office to cover the whole country (also not forgetting the notorious Ashford call centre), it doesn’t seem such a big deal – but it was then, and the argument continues to break cover from time to time.
Did we, for example, get a good deal when we were based at Brooks Mews? Plenty of space for the press team, sure, but major building renovations were going on, so would it have been rentable to anyone else, and were the extensive business rates we paid justified? Our Great Smith St. office was similarly controversial.
Another long-standing fissure line is Tory candidates. At least as far back as 2001, Lord Pearson – then still Tory – was proposing between £1 and 2 million could be ours if we would not stand against 30 or so strongly Eurosceptic Tories where our candidacy could lose them the seat. The negotiations leaked, and Tory central stamped on the idea.
Later, in 2010, when he was UKIP leader, the NEC said he could pick six or so Tories to save in the coming GE – provided he had branch blessing. In the end, it was more like 12 – not what the NEC intended, and not all local branches affected were happy. Kettering branch are now pro-Hollobone – viz. the famous 2017 pact – but these pages are still full of complaints from local Kippers who feel that their local branch has been trodden on in similar circumstances. Will we never learn?
Nigel pretty much needs to further elaboration, as examples abound all over the Internet. It is a long-standing truism that when asked “What’s UKIP’s current policy on xyz?”, the answer is “What Nigel just said on live TV!” He single handedly got Lord Pearson to succeed him as leader, by saying on live TV that he (Lord P.) was the only worthwhile candidate.
He persuaded the NEC to reverse–ferret on PEPPs despite a recent party debate and referendum on the issue which had voted no. (I had been webmaster for the ‘no’ campaign). With the IDDE and ADDE currently under investigation, are we being unfairly punished for doing what is perfectly legal, or should we have seen this coming (some did) and avoided the bait in the first place?
Sometimes his forceful personality brings blessings: one reason we have electronic voting in the rulebook is that Nigel made an impassioned pitch to the NEC in favour – mindful of cost savings and the “white heat thing”, we were happy to oblige. But it would have been a much harder sell to the non-techies, if only in terms of discussion time – if the TEC committee hadn’t been able to say “Nigel wants this”!
But also sometimes not: “Lechlade” was perhaps the party’s first think-tank, so called because it met in the village of that name near Swindon. Founded by David Lamb, who went on to write our pensions (?) policy one year, it was a convivial discussion group. Briefings and policy papers were discussed during the day, and social drinks held at night. Many key people attended: IIRC Jeffrey Titford and Roger Knapman, along with some future NEC members including yours truly.
It started going on tour, which is how I got to see Lexdrum, but then it took a misstep and booked a stand at annual conference. Nigel took an interest, and summarily closed the stand down saying “I don’t want parties within parties” or similar. Our subsequent meeting in the South East (Toby will recall) proved to be the last – David had been diagnosed with brain cancer, and wasn’t up for the necessary battle to keep us going.
So what lessons might be learnt from all of this?
- A London presence is good, but not necessarily at any cost.
- Not all Tories are the devil’s spawn, but as we take on a more distinct identity apart from Brexit, pacts will be harder to justify to members in general.
- Those who want a simple life should avoid serving on the NEC!
- As David Cameron found out, don’t hold referendums you risk losing, unless you are influential enough to ignore the result.
In conclusion, it was Bismarck who said, “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others“ – so should we rejoice in being spectacularly stupid – or strive to become even more so?