UKIP’s recent conference was hailed as a great success. Over 2,000 members were said to be there, out of a growing party membership approaching 40,000. We are told we are “on a roll”, that we are “the voice of the people”, even “The People’s Army”. Recent opinion polls have us between the high teens and mid-twenties in terms of national support and revealed that around 30% of the electorate would be prepared to consider voting UKIP. That approximates to around 8 to 14 million people respectively.
And yet we regard having a mere 40,000 members as a success.
In other words, we regard it as successful when only one in two hundred of the people who are prepared to vote UKIP have joined the party, and out of those 5% attended the national conference in Doncaster this year.
Something is very wrong with this picture. Yes, we are doing much better than any of the other main parties, but given these have been at best flat-lining or declining precipitously in recent years that is not much a yardstick to use. A better one is to put it into context of voluntary activity generally, and here our achievements are decidedly less impressive. Unlike the party political scene, there is no general collapse in British voluntarism, with many voluntary organisations retaining memberships in the millions that political parties used to have.
It’s not hard to see the reasons why British political parties are mere shadows of their former selves. True, back in the day being a member of a political party was often a social activity in a time when there were far fewer outlets for socialising than there are now. However, at the same time as social trends pulled people away from party membership, internal decisions made by party elites actively pushed them away. Party policy and opportunity became ever more jealously guarded by a closed, careerist political class, with the poor activist being expected to do the unglamorous heavy lifting of local campaigning as well as being constantly tapped for funds. To add insult to injury, activists in recent years have not only been used and ignored but also increasingly insulted by their leaderships.
Despite our recent growth, UKIP is in some senses little better and in fact the increases in party membership hide a great underlying structural weakness: let us be honest, we have a very traditional party structure with a “Sun King” leader. A brilliant Sun King, certainly, but a Sun King nonetheless. Maybe such a model was necessary when the party was small and vulnerable to infiltration and takeover by fanatics or extreme elements. However, it is not, in the long term, a model of organisation suitable to the 21st Century generally or for a party that has become a potentially uneasy amalgam of Libertarians, ex-Tories and the new breed of “Red-Kippers” storming Labour’s bastions in the North. Given its internal contradictions, UKIP would be highly vulnerable once Nigel Farage’s charismatic leadership comes to an end. Moreover, UKIP needs to become a truly mass movement if it wishes to continue to play in the big leagues. Lacking funding from powerful vested interests like the Tories or Labour, we are absurdly and very dangerously reliant on individual big donors and European funding via the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group, as recent events have painfully shown.
Instead, we should look to how most organisations model themselves in the Internet age, and here our newest star recruit and first MP should prove absolutely invaluable. It is one of Douglas Carswell’s greatest insights that political parties should be organised – and democratised – on the modern diffuse social network model, or in his words ‘spotified’. Not only should party membership should confer the ability to participate fully in the party’s functions and direction, but some kind of associate membership should allow people to “dip in and out” of party activism on the basis of policy questions that interest them. Email, Skype and internet discussion forums should be utilised to allow a medium of exchange between voters, activists, policy groups and the party office holders, essentially flattening hierarchies and creating fluid, self-organising, diffuse networks within or beyond the boundaries of the party, just as they do in so many areas of human activity today.
I should now declare an interest and state that, enthusiastic about Douglas’s ideas and greatly fearing they would be taken up by the Tory party hierarchy, I tried to shamelessly steal them and put them into practise for UKIP. (You can read some of my previous proposals here,) I even managed to start to put them into practise: with the help and encouragement of Carol Lovatt, Brian Otridge, Jonathan Arnott and Robert McWhirter, I attempted to ‘crowd source” policy formation and published snippets of draft policies for the Children’s and Families Policy Group on the party’s internal forum. We started to get considerable momentum, with some great and insightful comments on policy proposals as well as new ideas being put forward by the membership. However, within the space of a few weeks the forum was then all but shut down following a national media furore based on the odd inflammatory post elsewhere. Although the policy board was retained, the forum lost critical mass and what looked like turning into a very exciting project was tragically still-born.
However, to our great good fortune, we now have the chief proponent of what he calls ‘iDemocracy’ as a member and our first MP. Carswell’s record of course speaks for itself – he used social media in Clacton exceptionally effectively to build up not only a huge personal following but also a much bigger local Conservative activist base against the trend of rapid decline elsewhere. Let us now give Douglas his head and put him in charge of restructuring the party on the social network model, one that is both fit for the 21st century and that can confidently survive and prosper after Nigel finally retires to the saloon bar. With Carswell’s vision and intellect, there is no reason why we can’t build a UKIP with a networked membership in the hundreds of thousands. Then, the sky really would be the limit on what we could all achieve together.