There has been a spate of articles in the press highlighting UKIP’s current problems – so nothing new there actually – and some members are very concerned over the `party in peril’ narrative and the in-fighting that the press and social media give prominence to. I too have felt despair at times over all this, but after the London hustings on Thursday, 25th August, I have become more optimistic. I explain why.
London was the last of the official hustings. Perhaps some end of term camaraderie set in, perhaps it was just tiredness after travelling the country, perhaps awareness of member concerns – the candidates made a special effort, but I did not see the “bitter” divisions that some press articles say is there, nor the “factionalism” that is said will prove fatal. Instead, I saw a hustings at which the atmosphere was very positive from audience and candidates alike. If there are personal antipathies between candidates then they hid them well. I saw gracious clapping of each other’s speeches, acknowledgment of points they agreed on as well as differences in their mini manifestos. It would have been a bizarre occasion if leadership candidates did not have differences of policy and philosophy. The point of a hustings is to explore those differences after all.
The final event was well attended with over 100 members and my impression was that everyone was genuinely interested in what the candidates had to say. All were respectfully applauded and none were booed or heckled. The questions were all intelligent and none were head banger stuff designed to smear and discredit. If you had not read the press or twitter but judged the state of the party by this hustings alone you would not know there was this alleged crisis. It would be clear that the party was at a crossroads, of course, inevitable when a charismatic leader steps down but also as the party transitions from single issue to a full range of policies fit for contesting in a general election. No cause for alarm at all. Rather, it is a time to engage constructively, not destructively.
The meeting was very well chaired by Paul Oakden and he made some general comments warning us that while a few people on social media are determined to stir up dissent and disharmony they do not represent the bulk of the party. For every email he received accusing the NEC of being the root of all evil he received many more either disagreeing or urging calm and dealing with whatever the issues might be in a more measured way. He talked about an exciting conference to look forward to and the fact the books were balanced. The party was not in the red at all and membership numbers were in fact stable. A cynic might think that he would say that wouldn’t he. Well, yes, he would, especially if it was true and there is no evidence it is not.
There was discussion of the future. Only UKIP, the party that won Brexit, can guard that legacy. It is UKIP that is needed so badly to keep the pressure on and the only pressure that will affect Theresa May is electoral pressure, the same pressure that got us a referendum in the first place. Only if UKIP wins local council by-elections, wins seats in 2017 and beyond, and in wards and constituencies that matter to the main parties, will the government be pressed to stick to Brexit meaning Brexit and not some light or otherwise fudged version. A pressure group is just a lobbying organisation by another name and as such UKIP would be ineffective. UKIP is more important than ever but only if it is an election winning party.
I came away from the hustings impressed by the commitment and decency of the members of attending, by their common sense and by, I am sure, a feeling that everyone present desperately wanted the party to unite. Hope returned.
So all those members who are trying to stir up division and trouble: please note that you are fewer than you think and fewer than you would have us believe on twitter and elsewhere. Note also that your moment is passing as we approach the conference and that your call for wholesale slaughter of the NEC is looking less likely to succeed, as the London members present were, judging from conversations I had or overheard, inclining against having a national EGM. The mood was very much “let’s elect a new leader first and take it from there.”
Yes, hope returned.
Best wishes to you all and hope to see you in Bournemouth. Look out for the teddy bear!