This blog set out to discuss the referendum and its aftermath, and has not said much about UKIP, or any other political party. But it may not come as a surprise to readers that I have been a member of UKIP for the past couple of years. Leafletting door-to-door in the 2015 general election was good preparation for the 2016 referendum.
UKIP is in the unusual position of having achieved its primary political goal, and finds itself casting around for what to do next. It is tempting to look for the next Big Issue over which to take on the “establishment”. But before doing so everyone involved should stand back and take stock.
First of all, Brexit is not yet delivered. UKIP must not neglect the need to campaign for true UK independence throughout the negotiations. As I have argued, only leaving the Single Market will truly return to us the powers of a sovereign state.
But many in the party are already looking beyond that, and the ability of UKIP to take votes from Labour in its northern heartlands is causing much excitement. It is true that UKIPs appeal cuts across traditional boundaries of party and class. I will admit that when I joined I was expecting to find a haven for blazered disaffected Thatcherites (which fairly describes me, apart from the blazer). And not a few UKIP members fit that description. But what I found was people from all walks of life and backgrounds, united only in the belief that the UK and its people should be trusted with self-government, and that the Westminster parties have lost the plot. And a preference for gnawing their own arms off rather than vote Tory.
It is clear that Labour is now a party of middle-class lefties that has abandoned any pretence it had to represent “the workers”. This is undoubtedly an opportunity for other parties, but if Labour’s predicament teaches us anything it is that we need to think beyond appealing to any one section of society.
If we are to know what UKIP is for, we must first ask what any political party is for. In a democracy, the fundamental purpose of a party is
- to get its candidates elected to political office
But, as UKIP has shown, that is not all there is to it. We have overturned an establishment shibboleth, unseated a PM and a Chancellor, and changed the political landscape, with only one MP. UKIPs hard-working MEPs and Councillors have contributed to the outcome, but we must remember that standing candidates is a means to and end, and that political ends may be achieved without great electoral success. Traditional parties are geared to some combination of:
- Promoting a political philosophy
- Representing the interests of a particular group or class
It is going to be difficult to turn UKIP into a traditional political party. After Brexit, what do the free-market libertarians and the working class patriots have in common? What is the core principle, other than leaving the EU, that unites us?
It seems to me the main contribution UKIP made to achieving independence was to bring two crucial issues back into the public debate from the outer darkness into which the main parties (and indeed minor parties) had consigned them; namely immigration, and EU membership itself. When forced to debate these issues, the supposedly unanswerable case for them collapsed.
Gradually, during the last 30 years, political debate in the UK has become ossified. As the two main parties have fought each other for the ‘centre ground’ increasingly large areas of discourse have become subject to a stultifying consensus over which mainstream politicians agree to agree, in pursuit of ever more refined distinctions of language and spin.
Exaggerated environmental fears such as catastrophic climate change, and non-issues like fox hunting and same-sex marriage have taken up more and more parliamentary time, while genuinely important new challenges such as the effect of mass migration on the peoples of rich and poor countries, integration of minorities, the power of international corporations, and causes of the financial crisis, have been all but ignored. Truly radical and courageous thinking on all these issues is desperately needed. Political correctness on social issues has been a part of the problem, but the rot goes deeper. We have started to lose the habit of robust political debate, of being able to disagree over important issues while maintaining social cohesion and mutual respect.
Part of the reason for this is the tendency to see every political question as a test of virtue. Terms like racist, sexist, homophobic etc, describe moral failings rather than opinions you disagree with. On this world view opposing ideas are not be argued with, but shouted down. Dissenters must be shamed or bullied into changing their opinions or, more likely, hiding them.
It is this attitude that made rational discussion of immigration almost impossible for four decades, and why it is still impossible with some people today. All that matters to Jeremy Paxman is your attitude to migrants. Is it sufficiently compassionate? As if feelings were a substitute for thoughts and policies.
It seems to me that what the UK needs now is not a party carving out a new coalition of interest groups, nor one trying to invent a distinctive philosophy of government. What it needs is a party dedicated to full and open debate of the issues that really concern people, shorn of irrelevant labels. UKIP must be the party that is not afraid to ask the difficult questions.
Let’s be clear – being against political correctness does not mean being in favour of racism, sexism or any other -ism that PC claims to oppose. That is the linguistic trap the social justice warriors are trying to set for us. But judging by the reaction to recent cases including a Mexican hat, a gay cake and an old footballer telling a bad joke, a large cross-section of the public thinks PC has gone too far. Yet no main stream politician has the courage to say so. This is not about wanting to repeal every piece of social legislation since 1960. It is about a rebalancing in favour of traditional notions of freedom under the law: freedom of speech, of association and of conscience.
In my view UKIP can best serve the British people by continuing to raise issues that the other parties see as too dangerous, or as unworthy of debate. This article has discussed the kinds of issues that it seems to me need to be talked about more. It is not supposed be an an exhaustive list, still less a manifesto.
Some influential party members have suggested that UKIP needs to review its governance system. This seems like a good time to do so. The structures needed to become an ongoing party of opposition, and perhaps in time of Government, are quite different from those of a single issue campaign. New structures for ensuring good governance, sound policy making and party discipline need to be developed.
The policy process will be crucial. I believe the way forward is to have the widest possible engagement. A party’s manifesto is its offering to the country. It must seek to capture the concerns and aspirations, not just of the party’s activists, or even its core supporters, but of the whole voting public. To that end a 21st century party should use social media and other internet platforms as well as traditional avenues to engage with the widest possible group of supporters.
But I also believe it must not make the mistakes of Blair and Cameron, who relied on focus groups to determine policy, nor of Corbyn’s Labour which has made a fetish of internal party democracy, marginalising its MPs.
While engagement must be as wide as possible, detailed policies must be formulated by a dedicated policy forum, and the final decision must rest with the leader and the elected politicians who are charged with delivering them.
The Westminster establishment has been rocked, but not overthrown. The traditional parties, the BBC and much of print media still have most of their cozy metropolitan consensus in tact. Brexit was for them a battle lost, but they have not gone away. UKIPs new mission must be to finish what we have started: revitalising democracy and returning power to the people. The revolution is not over.