UKIP is at a crossroads. It has been there for some time, but as Nigel Farage has pointed out 2016 may be an ʻepicʼ political year so if the Party is to fulfil its potential it is essential it makes a key decision about the future.
Put simply, UKIP has to decide what is the Party for. Is it just to get the UK out of the EU or does it want to be a permanent force in British politics instead? For while these two aims have some common features they are distinct goals which require very different strategies to achieve success.
Some ʻUkippersʼ may see these aims as dual-objectives which can be pursued at the same time and dealt with in sequence, and that like the Scottish National Party, UKIP will experience domestic political success even if it loses the EU Referendum. However, this is flawed thinking because it overlooks the single-minded determination needed to successfully pursue either goal, and ignores major differences between the two parties.
Even South of Hadrianʼs Wall it should be obvious that UKIP is not the SNP, it does not have the Nationalistʼs political experience or credibility, their domestic relevance and power, their resources, widespread electoral support or the SNPʼs clear strategic narrative.
Instead, as it has experienced progress UKIP’s narrative has become more ambiguous. Initially fixed on one target alone – getting the UK out of the EU – it now increasingly talks of success in the 2020 General Election. As that election will take place at least 29 months after the EU ballot, General Election efforts can only serve another strategic aim.
Similarly, in his stirring Conference closing speech and New Yearʼs message Nigel Farage stressed the historic importance of the EU Referendum, whilst saying UKIP will contest the local government, Police & Crime Commissioner, London Mayor and devolved Assembly elections due in May. Patently UKIP yearns for electoral success, but what is the purpose of this blanket ambition?
Before the Prime Minister committed to holding a Referendum on EU membership UKIP had the freedom to pursue both strategic aims as they were mutually supportive – UKIPʼs influence on David Cameronʼs appetite for a Referendum being proportional to the threat it posed to the Conservative Party in domestic politics. However, once the Referendum UKIP had fought for for so long was granted, the Party was presented with a priority decision it has yet to make.
The liberty UKIP had to simultaneously pursue different aims has masked the imperative for a new, single-minded, strategy. As 2016 may resolve the Referendum question, it is now essential UKIP makes a clear decision on its primary purpose because that choice will have inevitable consequences for its leadership, its role in local politics, its planning and policies, membership, activities and UKIPʼs relationship with other parties. Not making or delaying that choice may undermine UKIPʼs ability to achieve either a ʻBrexitʼ or an enduring influence.
If UKIPʼs raison dʼetre is still to secure British independence from the EU then those in the Party with the best knowledge and understanding of the European Union, its plans, aspirations and failings are UKIPʼs MEPs, they are the ʻLeaveʼ campʼs ʻTrojan Horseʼ and none argue so effectively against EU membership as Nigel Farage.
In this case, these MEPs are UKIPʼs vanguard who can campaign with expert insight, credibility and authority, Nigel is its obvious leader, and UKIP policies that do not promote an exit from the EU are an unwelcome diversion of campaigning effort, a campaign which must culminate within two years (by December 2017), and perhaps as soon as June 2016.
This offers a very short period in which to plan and prepare for the Referendum and it demands specific activities of local UKIP branches and activists. What matters most in this scenario is winning the Referendum, not promoting the party. Consequently, UKIP should actively ally with any political parties seeking a ʻBrexitʼ, even to its own disadvantage, and time spent by UKIP councillors, its only MP or Parliamentary Resource Unit on longer-term domestic issues is an unwarranted distraction.
As the approaching Referendum may be the only opportunity Britons have to leave the EU for generations, if UKIP exists to achieve a ʻBrexitʼ then it must be relentless, unswerving and fervent in the pursuit of that objective – enforcing a discipline that demands the end of Party activities which are superfluous to that goal. It requires a zealous intensity that befits the culmination of 25 years ambition.
However, if UKIPʼs paramount aim is to be an enduring force in domestic politics then this objective is not dependent on success in the EU Referendum. Rather, it entails moving the Partyʼs centre of gravity from Brussels to Westminster, achieving power in local authorities across the UK, winning Parliamentary seats in a ʻfirst past the postʼ electoral system and ensuring it has a relevance that can survive a Referendum defeat.
In this strategic choice it is UKIPʼs local councillors and its sole MP who are the vanguard of the Party. Because they best understand the English political environment and local needs, it is they who should lead on the formation and implementation of domestic policies, and it is their performance, views and credibility which matter most to voters.
This scenario is played out over a much longer time frame than the Referendum schedule, where a large and growing membership, an effective Party structure and a broad electoral foundation are essential to UKIPʼs long-term success, and in this very different context the Party may be best served under the leadership of someone who is not completely immersed in the Referendum debate or anchored to the European Parliament.
Another fundamental difference in this case is that as UKIP would be competing against other parties in local and national elections, instead of seeking alliances to advance a single supra-party issue it must continually demonstrate its distinctiveness and find ways of promoting a unique identity which attracts sufficient voters to win elections.
A clear commitment to a specific strategic aim would help UKIP organise, plan, concentrate efforts, better judge its success and build a compelling narrative that defines the Party in voters minds.
But if it is not clear about its purpose then ultimately its efforts would be weakened, fragmented, perhaps incoherent, and the electorate would seek clarity elsewhere.
UKIP should adopt the first principal of warfare – selection and maintenance of the aim – as a matter of urgency, especially if its aim is to secure Britainʼs independence from the EU. If that is so, it may be only months from the culmination of its existence and must be ready to exhaust, even sacrifice, itself in the pursuit of that objective.
So UKIP stands at a crossroads. The ways before it may run parallel at times but they follow separate routes to very different destinations. The approaching EU Referendum demands that the Party quickly commits to one path, and doing so would certainly make 2016 an epic year for UKIP.