It’s a rare thing to have a proper headshot at the establishment, but after 20 years, various splits and schisms within the party, slurs of racism from the main parties, and a mainstream media that went from ignoring them completely to often open hostility, UKIP are finally in a position to not only threaten the main parties at Westminster but to play a decisive role in the next general election, and perhaps even in forming the next government.
Having come first in the Euro elections in the summer, and recently won one by election in Clacton, Nigel Farage’s party are now clear favourites for a second win in Rochester & Strood next week. Meanwhile arguably a bigger coup still was the Heywood by election where just over 600 votes kept UKIP from winning a Labour safe seat. Farage has managed the seemingly impossible and made a libertarian-conservative party appealing to disaffected voters from all the main parties and strong enough in certain areas to actually win seats under the first past the post system.
As a supporter of UKIP and a believer in most of what they stand for this is great news, but not a time to get complacent. There are still plenty of pitfalls which the media and political establishment would love to see UKIP fall into.
There are broadly three main ways they can screw it up at this stage and they are going native, attracting the wrong people, and selling out badly.
Firstly going native - enjoying the perks of elected office and losing sight of their objectives. UKIP's MEPs seem to have a reputation for the former if not the latter. Speaking as someone who is out and out opposed to the existence of the European Union as an entity as well as Britain’s membership of it, I don’t really care a jot about UKIP MEPs enjoying their expenses or not bothering to vote very often.
The danger is that they come to enjoy this too much, and start to see their own careers as best served by being in the European Union . Look out for talk of renegotiating our relationship, reforming the EU’s institutions, or some sort of confederate model that lets bureaucrats, politicians and UKIP MEPs keep their highly paid jobs while not answering the fundamental problems with the European Community. No renegotiation with the European Union is possible or desirable, as 40 years of the main parties apparently attempting this has shown. We need to get out in order to make Britain a functioning democracy.
Attracting the wrong people - their fast growth means they are bound to have attracted some loons alogn the way, and we've already seen some of their candidates having colourful backgrounds at least, and others coming out with things that won’t win them elections. If this shakes itself out after a few months then fine but if it goes too far it will be damaging.
But the “wrong” people here aren’t just racist nut cases who will repel ordinary voters. UKIP has recently done a lot to chase Labour voters, especially in “safe” seats in the north. While this definitely makes sense from an electoral point of view, some of these people are outright unreformed Stalinists, still smarting over pit closures. UKIP cannot pander to this group either without fundamentally changing the small government, individualist message that makes UKIP make sense in the first place.
UKIP must be more than just an escape valve for the anger of this demographic – they have to actually make the case for small government and keep these votes when left wing parties come along offering freebies at the expense of ‘the rich.” Possible, but not easy.
Last, but definitely not least, is the temptation to sell in the out wrong way. Short of actually winning a general election UKIP will have to do a deal at some point, and most likely with the Conservative party. If they do this too cheaply they will burn out, as we are now witnessing the Lib Dems doing now. If they refuse to do it at all then they will never move beyond a protest party.
With a new Tory leader, a sniff of power to reward Farage’s twenty years’ of hard work, the temptation to sell out too cheaply is all too obvious. A coalition with the Tories in exchange for the promised referendum represents the biggest present danger to UKIP. We have seen the modus operandi in Scotland and any such EU referendum would be heavily rigged in favour of the UK staying in, with juicy sounding but hollow concessions set against an ill formed “Out” alternative. The SNP can survive this sort of defeat with their strong local powerbase north of the border. UKIP cannot. Losing a fudged referendum would lose their raison d’être for a generation and without a firm and established base in Westminster the party would be cast into the wilderness and the hopes of a democratic UK would go with it.
Conversely staying out of government forever will not serve any useful purpose. After 2015 we will have a wealth of information on where UKIP’s support lies and how to win it and their enviable resonance with the voting public will be lost. In a best case scenario this will lead the Tories, realising they have lost a general election because of UKIP, to offering a proper alternative outside of the European Union, but history and logic suggest a rigged referendum is more likely. Again this will take away UKIP’s reason for being without them ever achieving the goal of taking the country out of the European Union.
Only time will tell how this pays out, but anyone thinking the hard work is done is setting themself up for a massive disappointment, and anyone thinking the battle is already won is gravely mistaken. UKIP have now got enough rope to hang someone and it could yet be themselves. However they now have the momentum, they can’t be ignored or tarnished as fringe group racists anymore, and it’s entirely up to them to make their voices heard, and to make sure their voice is saying something coherent and compelling.