This article began as an observation on Paul Smyth’s article ‘UKIP – At A Crossroads’ which makes an important contribution to resolving the question ‘who are we?’.
I joined UKIP because I believed it could (and still can) satisfy the need for a truly national party free of the low level corruption endemic within the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. For me, UKIP’s real purpose is to become and to remain a potent political force and to do that the party has to develop its internal structures and procedures as well as discard a command and communications mechanism which relies upon two, almost unconnected, entities; the party central on the one side and constituency associations, members and supporters on the other.
We have been both helped and constrained by a leader with great debating skills and a prominent celebrity status. Everyone, including those who don’t even know who the prime minster is will know who Nigel is. His particular ability to connect with people and raise issues that the politically correct will not dare to mention has been the principle factor in an amazing rise in the popularity of UKIP over the last two years. However, such reliance cannot and will not fuel the next stage of growth because rhetoric and style always become stale and unfashionable without new impetus and it is always necessary to re-brand from time to time to engender that feel of freshness and a sense of moving on.
We, perhaps, don’t need a new leader but we do need a new party (structure). Labour did this re-branding exercise with spectacular success with the New Labour concept and a leader with an extraordinary ability to connect and sound sincere, despite the fact that in 1997 we were in a period of strong economic growth largely due to the former Tory years. The Tory brand had simply gone sour and it appeared that they had nothing more to offer.
The constraints that have been unwittingly borne by the party are paradoxically due to the phenomenal success that Nigel has personally created. Essentially, we have ignored structural development of the party as a whole simply because our fairy godmother’s wand seemed to be achieving everything we could have possibly hoped for. However that phase of our development may be coming to an end.
The EU referendum will come and go. Whatever the result there remains a need and desire in the UK for a party with a broader support base, that isn’t reliant on funding from polarised groups and therefore not beholden to any extreme factions. Our current political system is defined by such opposites and the shallowness of political discourse is now the norm when the long term well-being of all our citizens should be the centre of any argument. There is no reason that leaving the EU could not remain a principle policy commitment should the referendum vote be to remain. After all, a general election outranks a referendum.
At the moment I’m not sure which party we are. I know there are those for whom the referendum is the entire purpose of UKIP and for them it can hold no meaning after. However if the majority of the current party also see a clear need for a party to be as well supported in Oldham as it is in Tunbridge Wells then only UKIP can achieve that.
Perhaps, many years ago, it would have been more difficult, it certainly was for a failed SDP that attempted the same disruption of the two party state and eventually joined with the Liberals just to survive but, now the political landscape is different. The opportunities for a real third force are as pronounced as they will ever be. With Jeremy Corbyn marching his Labour Party away from the electorate at ever increasing speed UKIP could be the force to replace them, but it will not do that on the basis of celebrity only. Having seen the SDP try that with a quartet of high profile and experienced parliamentarians we should be in no doubt that such a strategy simply doesn’t work.
It is the membership that makes parties work, often against unintentional opposition from their leaders. We can still see effective grass roots groups of Liberal Democrats despite their former disastrous leader and being currently encumbered with a hopelessly inadequate one. A successful party needs both.
Well, it’s fine to criticise but what we really need is direction. The party has to change, become more open and take a close look at some of our appointed spokespeople who consistently underperform when the spotlight is at its brightest.
For me, the party has a structure which is dysfunctional. This is principally responsible for the tenuous connection between those who march through the constituency’s streets and those who direct the party’s agenda. Even the very foundation of our organisation, the constitution, is wanting. We have an executive whose members are largely unknown but even that anonymity pales into insignificance when compared to the mystery of what they actually do and how effective they are. We are still operating on a structure that might have worked for a few mates starting a party to get us out of the EU but will fail us in creating a party capable of government.
The real test for any political party is policy. An area in which, historically, we (UKIP) have been spectacularly inconsistent. If we have the ideas and vision for today’s many issues the support will follow but unless the organisational structure, processes and communications lines are functioning we can never be in a position to create that wide ranging policy platform to deliver to the populace. All the time policy is handed to someone to dream up we’ll continually miss opportunities and fall down holes. I will not need to remind you of the counter-productive policy emissions that have spewed forth in previous elections.
So, what to do? Well, perhaps we can begin with some fundamental principles?
1. The party governance must be representative and transparent. This means the executive should be comprised of regional representatives, (not necessarily the geographic areas we currently refer to as ‘regions’) they should be a part of regional organisation structures and report back regularly on their meetings, views, contributions and voting records. A member with an issue, or an idea, then has a formal structure and a person to go through.
2. We need a robust process for policy determination and that should be operating permanently. It should include the concept of a ‘red team’ which is a group of people completely unconnected with the formulation of the policy being reviewed with the remit to challenge it. Red teams can be drawn from the membership as and when needed (we really do have the skills). Policy creation and publication should be ongoing to promote honesty and transparency to the electorate. We should not be concerned with the slightly paranoid view that other parties will steal our ideas. That way we will be fully ready for a general election long before the other parties and the publication of our manifesto will no longer be the surprise ‘toy’ but simply a confirmation of something everybody already knows well.
3. We should actively encourage the registration of supporters as well as members. Many do not want to ‘join’ a political party but will support one. We had 3.8 million of those in May 2015.
4. We must revolutionise fund raising by donation. The typical political demand ‘give us your money’ has limited effect. The simple principles should be to a) connect b) inform c) tell people what we need to buy d) ask them for money then e) tell them what we spent it on.
I could go on but space is limited.
To attain governance we need to up our game considerably and there will never be a better opportunity to step into the void that Labour is creating. Sadly I see no signs that the fundamental party structures and purpose will change but, fingers crossed?