Published on September 27th, 2015 |
by Eleanor Newis
UKIP Conference 2015: We Stand Disunited
After UKIP’s disappointing performance in the results of May’s general election, (4 million votes, or 12.6%), gaining only one MP despite all the panic – and indeed gleeful anticipation – about their rise, you’d think they would be a little cowed when they collected at Doncaster racecourse on the 24th September. But, the UKIP conference 2015 has proved an even stranger and enthusiastic spectacle than anyone could have hoped for. The irony of UKIP’s choice of location is that Doncaster racecourse was actually built with EU money – and that irony pretty much set the tone for the entire conference, as it turns out. I mean, at what other UK political party conference are you going to find a woman with a politician’s face tattooed on her arm?
Yes, that’s right. Ms. Kerrie Webb, who works as a branch secretary for Chesterfield, genuinely has a large illustration of Nigel Farage tattooed on her arm. Part of me wants to type that again, but I’ll stop: you’ve probably got the picture, excuse the awful pun. When asked, Webb declared that she got Farage’s face inked on her to signify “freedom of speech and fighting for Britain’s youth”, and was inspired to spend the necessary £130 for the artwork after watching the poor man lose his parliamentary seat in May. Blimey, and people worry about the electorate becoming increasingly apolitical and detached from the class which rules them – certainly not so here. And, that is the thing about Farage: it’s easy to scoff at all those photos of him posing with a pint, but after all, it does cultivate the image which is so important to UKIP’s success. This is that of the anti-politician, the outsider, which is turned by those who can play it right, into the ‘man of the people’ – perhaps the man whose face gets tattooed on people’s arms.
This is perhaps why even after the failure of UKIP at the ballot box earlier this year, Farage only resigned to return as leader within a very short space of time: he has, for all that some like to ridicule him, captured a section of the British public for whom politics has become a form of protest against the government, the opposition, and perhaps against politics itself. Voters have moved to UKIP from both the Tories and Labour, and Farage has been spinning more tales this week about MPs defecting to his party. So, the support for UKIP is not really partisan, instead it is drawn from people ruffled at the state of politics, and mainly by the specific issues of immigration and the EU. It is here that, actually, the party is now facing difficulties – and when I say difficulties, I mean a mini party civil war that looks quite a lot like some middle-aged men having a collective tantrum. The source of the conflict is Farage’s endorsement at the conference of the grassroots campaign to leave the EU when the referendum rolls around – creatively named Leave.EU – and Douglas Carswell’s support (as UKIP’s only MP) of the cross-party movement For Britain.
The Leave.EU campaign is being funded by the millionaire donor to UKIP, Arron Banks, who was present at the conference. Actually, he was very much present. After various discussions and confusions in the media about which movement would be UKIP’s official foray into the argument to leave the EU, the tension apparently broke as Banks and Carswell decided to confront each other in a corridor during the conference. According to The Guardian, Banks accused Carswell of being “borderline autistic with some mental illness attached.” He did later deliver a sort of back-handed apology though, saying “Douglas Carswell was appallingly rude and provocative towards me today, which does not justify my behaviour, for which I apologise.” The two of them will still be arguing over who started it, as the shouting was apparently sparked by Banks’ comments to The Guardian that Carswell would eventually have to join the Leave.EU group or face being deselected as an MP. Now, although the idea of two middle-aged UKIP members shouting each other down in a corridor is quite amusing, it doesn’t bode well for the organisation of the party: the aim of setting up a political party is normally to govern the country, which is presumably harder if you cannot govern yourselves. Apart from this, Farage now has a delicate balancing act on his hands, as he tries to organise the party into the EU-fighting force it was meant to be – arguably more than a force proposing to get to Westminster.
Farage will have to unite UKIP behind a single campaign to get out of the EU, or let them splinter off – and be aware of what repercussions it might have for the future of UKIP itself. Added to this, he apparently will also have to deal with various members and associates of his party sniping at each other in view of the media – and indeed his own tendency to do a little sniping, like when he described the For Britain campaign as “a talking shop in Tufton Street”. Indeed, the very issue which spawned UKIP and saw it turn into the political phenomenon which a few years ago significantly rocked both Labour and the Conservatives has now pulled the party into jeopardy. Perhaps Farage is not too bothered by this: he told The Financial Times in the run-up to the conference that the party was “not my priority at the moment”, as it was being replaced by the EU battle. So, maybe this whole conference thing isn’t as serious as I’m making it out to be: after all, UKIP’s primary goal is to draw attention to the EU debate, and this conference has done just that.
Unfortunately for anyone who wants the exit-EU campaign to look serious, or who actually wants to see UKIP in government, it has also drawn attention to the sometimes ridiculous nature of the party. It’s not just the tattooed Farage fan – there were purple and yellow anti-EU slush puppies, and matching teddies (which a very witty Robert Hutton dubbed on Twitter, “the UKIP Teddy Army”). Then, there was the presence of Katie Hopkins – a columnist often as reviled as she is renowned – who turned up unexpectedly to show her support for leaving the EU and to pontificate about immigration and “British values”. I use the word pontificate, because though people may have quite legitimate arguments about these things, Hopkins is not one of them – anyone who claims that the photo of drowned child Aylan Kurdi was “staged” should not be debated with like a rational human. When asked whether he thought the photo was “staged”, Farage said “I doubt it, I’ve no idea”, and finished by rather eloquently speaking for the British nation when he said “Katie Hopkins says all sorts of things.” Hopkins is also not averse to drastic action towards the House of Lords: “I don’t really mind if you seal up the room and gas the lot of them.”
Now, Hopkins is of course an extreme example of a UKIP sympathiser. The problem is that UKIP appears to have gathered a few extreme examples along its way to Westminster, and those extreme examples are going to make it increasingly difficult for the party to progress electorally – or more importantly, according to Farage, to run a coherent exit-EU campaign. If these differences and embarrassments are not ironed out, UKIP faces the possibility of becoming a parody of what it seeks to represent; it purports itself to be the result of a grassroots movement towards a totally independent Britain, one centred around “British values” and history. When more and more UKIP members or sympathisers come forward with statements like those of Hopkins, and his key financer is fighting with his only Westminster MP in the corridor of Doncaster racecourse, he’s going to have his work cut out. UKIP need to unite around a common movement if they want to achieve anything – now, personally, I’m very happy for them to achieve nothing, but I imagine there are people who disagree. So, if you do want UKIP to actually progress at all, I suggest you teach both Carswell and Banks the count-to-ten anger management technique, and keep all meeting locations secret from Katie Hopkins.