Napoleon once said: never attribute to conspiracy that which is adequately explained by incompetence. Indeed, incompetence is more than sufficient, unfortunately, to explain where we are now.
Psychologists say that people prone to believe in conspiracies are really struggling with the idea that “chance and circumstance happeneth to all”, as we were so sagely advised by Ecclesiastes, and prefer to believe that life and the universe are ultimately controllable. For them, the idea that someone is controlling and manipulating (even malignly) is preferable to the reality of randomness and incompetence. Unfortunately for them, the belief is not father to the fact. The lamentable state of our party is truly the result of clumsy, ego-blinded incompetence of the common variety.
How did we get to here and what, if anything at all, can be done? There are many places to start from but a recent one will do, and that is Nigel’s decision to stand down as leader. Forethought, that it’s someone else’s turn for all the hassle, is not the same as foresight, that the resulting factionalism will drive away members and donors and lead ultimately to the party’s bankruptcy. The consequences to stepping down that have ensued are unlikely to have been intended. Nigel would not want to see his achievement completely overshadowed by a legacy of the destruction of the party. He must also know that only electoral pressure, which led to Cameron offering a referendum at all, will keep Brexit on course, and only a functioning UKIP can provide that.
Nigel was tired, needed and deserved a rest, and so he failed to think about timing and succession management. He discussed the decision with absolutely no-one. It was entirely selfish in a way and pure incompetence from the perspective of party management. Given the extraordinary effort he made during the referendum campaign it may be forgivable incompetence, but I do not know what excuses Nuttall and Crowther from abandoning ship with the captain. True captains go down with the ship and are not the first to leave!
Less forgivable was calling the NEC “lowest grade people” with the snobbish extra of “bringing their own sandwiches”. This was on a par with Raheem Kassam dismissing Lisa Duffy as a “former cleaner”: unnecessarily cheap and nasty. People who sneer betray more about themselves than the target of their sneers. It is weakness, feelings of inadequacy, that needs to derisively denigrate others to bolster oneself. And therein lies an implicit admission from Nigel that he had not handled his dispute with Carswell at all well. Nigel was – is – a single issue campaigner, not a manager, and he had no experience of managing a large board nor, during the heat of the campaign, time or inclination to learn. Carswell was at fault too. He and Evans were unable to handle being called racists, so they capitulated to the trolls and sought to deny immigration as an issue at all, hoping they would be personally spared insult. Their sneers at Nigel are sneakier but sneers nonetheless. That schism, which first arose as a question of tone during the general election, has grown. Carswell is smugly self-righteous and in denial of all the evidence that immigration was a significant issue, and siding with trolls against Nigel does not alter the underlying reality.
Nigel was petulantly dismissive of the NEC for having the temerity not to always agree with him, an ego childishly hurt. He failed to adapt to UKIP not being a sole proprietorship operation during the general election, and the NEC failed to see it then needed to behave like one nonetheless when faced with the single issue of a referendum. All comical incompetence – if it were not so tragic in its potential betrayal of all the people who placed their hope in UKIP to be better than the parties that let them down.
Some people think structural change is the solution and call for a new constitution. But structure was not the source of the problem in the first place. Regionalising the NEC, a motion defeated at Conference, is not a solution. A greater variety of accents on the NEC is not the answer. The regions are EU constructs and are absolutely not equal-size constituencies. Having a regional NEC representative will not disguise the fact that some regions fail to recruit members. While Carswell and Nigel have their deep hostility to each other any NEC, no matter how constituted, will be divided.
Diane James did not want to stand. Steven Woolfe was dithering – yes, supporters of his: he was – and the NEC had to phone him in Malta where he was on holiday to ask why he was not applying to be leader. Perhaps he was worried about his flawed PCC application coming to light, or perhaps he did not feel deep down that he was a leader. Banks and Nigel continued to press him, but pressed Diane as well, as a Plan B. Diane did not get up on the last day, a Sunday, suddenly looked up to see it was 11.40 and rushed to her PC (she’s an early riser)! She was in telephone contact with either Nigel or Banks or both who were in contact with Steven. When his half-hearted attempt at an application stalled, Plan B was activated with 20 minutes to go.
At her first hustings she focused on structural changes, blaming the NEC and promising to fire certain (unnamed) people. But she had no power to bring about structural change and so far as she continued with that line she was continuing the denial, the deflection, of the real problems right at the top. Diane James has form. She let Eastleigh down as PCC candidate in 2012, as PPC in 2015, and some people are not surprised by her giving up so easily.
I do not believe we have a membership of 34,000. It is said 17,960 voted in the leadership contest. We are not told how many members spoiled their ballot papers as Steven Woolfe supporters were urged to do. A few hundred if perhaps that. I do not believe that half the membership failed to vote in a very high visibility election that was followed by the media. If there are genuinely 34000 still on the books then half have given up and will not be renewing their membership. So this year’s receipts will be a lot less than £30 x 34000. More like £30 x 20000. That’s £600,000. Throw in a few patrons – a dwindling band – say, 60 if the party is lucky, and that is a further £60,000. That is not enough to run the party doing nothing, let alone running election campaigns. Indeed, Diane James cited lack of funding as one of her unconvincing reasons for suddenly giving up. So what if some MEPs and some party officers were not as subservient as she hoped for? Did she try real persuasion, offer real deals – that is, real politics? I suspect not. As to Woolfe, I was shocked that he has been in talks over the weekend to defect to the Tories – such commitment to UKIP! – and dismayed that on learning of Diane James’ resignation he showed himself to be a careerist by suddenly staying to pursue an opportunity. Presumably if he is not elected leader he will defect. Such leadership quality! Such gratitude to all those who voted for him!
Without members and secure funding the party is in deep trouble. For Steven Woolfe to say yesterday that he agreed with Nigel that the NEC is not fit for purpose is deeply worrying. It means the bookies favourite is as out of touch with reality as Diane James was. Forget structural reform. It may be considered at some future time if the party survives but it is a diversion: right now the party needs members and money, and needs them urgently.
Nigel needs to withdraw his resignation for a while at least. The NEC should offer him a deal. They should give him an easy time in return for a recruiting drive and a donor drive. Nigel need not even sit on the NEC anymore and can just do the gigs he likes, popping up on Question Time etc., as the fancy takes him. Steven Woolfe was indeed quite good on Question Time recently, but to those saying this means he must be leader I would point out that he was good without being leader and can continue as a party spokesperson – assuming he does not defect. The leadership question needs to be parked. It is too divisive, too destructive, and another contest will not lead to more members and more money. If we do not get those soon then there will be no party. Whatever action is proposed, the question is: will this lead to more members right now?
As to team Nigel v team Carswell: this should be openly debated. Carswell and Evans should be presented with evidence that immigration was a significant factor, be forced to admit Nigel was right and recant their self-serving criticisms of him – or depart. Nigel should acquire the humility to recognise there was some merit to issues about tone, that we are no longer trying to fire up core voters but to expand our base into domestic election territory where tone matters.
Like a war time cabinet, the various actors need to grasp that something bigger than themselves is at stake – the very survival of the party.