Around half an hour after Nigel resigned as leader I typed ‘UKIP’ into Google which returned a first page of results in which the Party’s website was surrounded by the news of Nigel’s resignation.
The UKIP website had no mention of this significant political event, almost as if it had not happened at all.
In his resignation speech Nigel mentioned the needed improvement in professionalism within the party, a factor that is so embarrassingly highlighted by this simple issue. Sadly, this is not an isolated instance and it is important to remember that what the party is now, in terms of success, is predominantly due to Nigel Farage and where it is in terms of organisational competency is predominantly due to those who have held positions of authority up until now including, perhaps, some who may also see themselves as a future leader.
Michael Portillo, last week, acknowledged Nigel as the highly influential party leader he has been, despite having only one MP, despite the skewed electoral system and despite the constant misrepresentation of his views. He has stood head and shoulders above others simply because he did it with the system against him as opposed to being with him. Michael Portillo also raised the real question of ‘what is the point of UKIP now’. So I’ll answer that and in the process outline the qualities, I believe, the new leader will need.
I have to say at the outset that I don’t, at the moment, see any of the ‘usual suspects’ as being the right person so who will emerge? One thing is certain, that to succeed the new leader must be able to identify and utilise those skills of people around them and within the party, there will not be another Nigel.
There is a vacuum in British politics that we have not experienced before. The Tories move us ever more toward a society that exacerbates the wealth division and pursues policies that do not necessarily serve the quality of life of the majority of British citizens. Gross GDP is the new god despite the plunging productivity and depression of wages due, in part, to mass immigration that we now have the means to temper. We are set, under Tory rule, to serve GDP above all else.
The Labour party is running away from its electorate as fast as it can into the arms of the ‘British left’. That’s not to suggest that they have anyone of appropriate integrity or vision in their parliamentary ranks either and any version of the existing political status quo will further damage our ability to move safely forward. The Liberal Democrats, Greens and the like will always play their bit part roles so the answer to ‘what now for UKIP’ is clearly to fill this hole and present a real alternative vision unfettered by the long term vested interests of the existing political elite.
To do that we must be bold as we always have been about getting out from under the disastrous European Union but, now we do not have a Farage.
Despite my recognition of Nigel’s successes, I truly believe that his standing down was and is a necessary evolutionary step to create the opportunity for UKIP to choose a new leader with the skills and abilities to take the next step. They will have a different tone, a sharp wit and be able to lay out a strategy to win the hearts and minds of the people. Alternatively, we could pick a dud as the party did before when he last stood down in 2009. It really is make or break. The election process isn’t helpful to ‘outsiders’ so it will be unusual were an unknown candidate to emerge but, not impossible.
So what needs to be done?
Our party is flawed from the constitution up. It worked well all the time the party was effectively seen as only Nigel Farage mainly because the 3.8 million votes in 2015 were principally gathered by him. The massive and committed constituencies who do the local leg work are virtually ignored by the party central yet still turn out because of a belief in the fundamental principles. However, they are generally older people, so having won Brexit it is time to spread the agenda and paint a picture of a fairer and more dynamic society, severely limiting the influence of vested interests and placing more power and authority into the hands of the people. The party needs to appeal across the spectrum and the way to do that is multidimensional.
The party’s constitution, rule book and structure must be re-set to establish a clear communications structure between the constituencies and the party governance. That can be done over time but, the fundamental messaging has to be immediate. We have to tell everybody what the new principles are, we must be bold and imaginative and have a leader that can present effectively in an unfriendly environment, to be engaging, be capable of instant, courteous and pertinent observations in debate but, above all, have an unflinching vision of a more egalitarian society with increased opportunities for all.
We will not always attract universal support for the things we know to be right but we must have fully prepared arguments to win over sceptics and tentative supporters alike. The challenge is not small. We have to have a more inclusive mechanism for policy creation. It must allow input from members as well as the great and the good. As a party we aren’t very good at using the skills and abilities of those who support our aims. Some of our members have very specific and well developed skills but the party doesn’t even attempt to tap into that rich vein. A principal use of thoughtful and educated supporters is as a repository to establish ‘Red Teams’. A red team is a group of people unconnected with a specific policy idea and their job is to try and break it. This is contrary to a the more usual approach of leaders and their immediate group who only listen to people who agree with them. That’s how the nonsensical ‘repeal of the smoking ban’ crept into the 2015 manifesto to the delight of the opposition who would prefer to talk about that than any other issue.
Policy creation needs to begin now. Manifesto commitments should no longer remain a secret until mysteriously revealed a couple of weeks before an election. When we introduce new political concepts they will take time to bed into the nation’s consciousness. Some debates we’ll need to win, so it is essential that people know what we stand for some way out.
Having policies ‘stolen’ is an overblown concern and quite flattering. The antidote to this perceived threat is to present so many original ideas and innovative policies that our opponents won’t know whether to steal any at all or which ones to steal first. That’s a better way to proceed.
The party also need to consider how to actively harvest supporters in addition to members, and also to clarify the benefits of membership (and add some) as there aren’t too many at the moment.
Having won Brexit we need a new and substantive calling, so the next major campaign has to be the extension of a fairer democracy including:
- A more representative and proportional electoral system (see www.makevotescount.co.uk ) not necessarily one of the flawed PR systems. F2PTP isn’t high on the political agenda of electoral reform despite meeting representative and proportional criterion better than any other system.
- The reform of political party and election funding which will mean public money. This is an argument that can be won as the alternative would forever negate this fairer concept of democratic engagement. Arguments should be won on their merits not on the size of bank balances. We must not underestimate the opposition to this from those with something to lose.
- An independent body from which all factual information connected with electoral campaigning must be drawn. Lies, damned lies and statistics should at least have an authoritative source.
- An internet voting option.
- The extension of local and national referenda.
We should commit to a royal commission on social healthcare and move the discussion away from a single and bureaucratic organisation (NHS). The health of the nation is not best served by a fundamentally reactive organisation doomed to be underfunded forever.
Above all though, UKIP will remain committed to independence, although no longer from the EU, but for the individual. Sometimes called social mobility, the ability of people to succeed depends principally on education and opportunity, so a plan is needed to advance this cause.
Do we have the right person waiting in the wings? Will an outsider come through and enthral people with new ideas and a positive future outlook, or will one of the sitting tenants simply get to occupy a chair that would be far too big for them?
Michael Portillo was right, we are at a crossroads, but we have an opportunity to make this third force in British politics a second or even a first one.