By Richard Fullerton, Chair of UKIP Cambs & SE Cambs. The views expressed here are personal and not representative of the branch.
I went to the UKIP National Conference in Wales two weekends ago on a fact-finding mission on behalf of my branch, and colleagues in the Eastern Region. My view before attending was that our new leader has been elected with a mandate to lead but is not being allowed to do so, whilst respecting the fact that I understand that the NEC have to run UKIP by the Constitution. But as a result of my attendance, I’ve have discovered that UKIP is more divided than I previously thought.
I estimate only 150 people attended the Friday conference and perhaps 200 on Saturday. It would have been embarrassing if the media were there. But they weren’t, luckily. Do you remember when we could fill a big auditorium with 800 to 1000 people? Those were heady days before and immediately after the referendum. But we’ve been in self-destruct mode since then. We’ve had no less than 6 leaders since 2016.
There are a number of reasons for our decline. The deficit of leadership since 2016; the loss of Nigel Farage from the party; complacency after the 2016 result when many members and followers assumed that the battle was won; and the change of direction of the party from a Brexit-dominated radical agenda for the UK towards one dominated by anti-Islam rhetoric.
By all accounts, our party was saved by Gerard Batten in 2018 when he agreed to become Interim Leader after the ejection of the disastrous Henry Bolton. Party coffers were replenished by around £300,000 (thanks largely to generous donors, members and branches) and membership grew from, apparently, a low of about 17,000 to just south of 30,000. On the face of this, it was a great achievement.
But unfortunately, the figures hid the fact that the very make-up of the membership of our party was changing. Normally active colleagues of mine in my branch and next-door branches started to leave, citing the party’s obsession with Tommy Robinson. They were embarrassed to be associated with him and were uncomfortable about the emphasis, and angle of attack on, Islam. The Brexit Party provided a ready home for them and senior party members up to MEP level.
The media, hurting after being on the losing side in the Brexit referendum, didn’t need an excuse to attack us. Every interview that Gerard Batten gave was dominated by two topics – Tommy Robinson and Islam. It was excruciating watching. According to NEC members I spoke with at the conference, Gerard started refusing to do many media interviews.
Our poll rating went from double figures in 2015 to 4% before the 2017 General Election. Now it is so low that we do not feature in polls. This year, we had the disaster of the May local elections (we lost 145 seats leaving us with only 31 councillors) and then the EU Parliament elections. UKIP apparently spent a huge sum on the latter (reportedly £500,000), paying for a leaflet that went out to every UK household, but got no MEPs. I and our branch campaigned heavily in both elections. I ran for District Councillor and supported Stuart Agnew in his campaigning for re-election to Brussels. We crashed and burned. All those miles of door-to-door walking, and time invested by myself and others at stalls was wasted because people were repelled by our image, which the media had vengefully and successfully re-labelled from the real party of Brexit to the Tommy Robinson, racist party.
If anyone is in any doubt about how our party make-up has changed, watch and listen to the conference Q&A session on Day 2 on YouTube
where a panel of NEC and other senior party figures faced hostile questioning from this new type of party member. Just so it’s clear, this member is a supporter of Tommy Robinson and is comfortable with a dominant anti-Islam message. How many of our membership (c23,000 according to our chair) share this view is anyone’s guess.
The recent election of Richard Braine as our new leader seemed to offer UKIP a new future when he was elected. I didn’t vote for him because, when asked at the hustings that I attended if he agreed that the anti-Islam, pro-Tommy Robinson strategy had been a disaster, he was ambivalent about it.
But when he won the election with an outright majority in the first round I was happy that we had a fresh new leader with good communications skills and apparently new ideas. When he later committed to not sharing a platform with Tommy Robinson, this was even better. Even when inevitable the media trawl of his past revealed anti-Islam statements, my response was ‘so what?’. Every Kipper I know is worried about Islam (it's just a question of emphasis).
However, for further evidence of there being a two-faction UKIP, you can look at the non-appearance of Richard Braine at his own party’s conference, as some sort of protest. Instead we were treated to a seven minute video address explaining why he wasn’t coming but saying how great we were.
Meanwhile Richard was holed up in a hotel five minutes’ walk from the conference centre. I know because it was my hotel and I saw him there at breakfast on the second day. What sort of party leader doesn’t turn up to his own party conference? According to the NEC, it’s one who is receiving bad advice. So who is giving this advice? Apparently, it is the Integrity group which has been set up within UKIP and which is why two senior party members Alan Craig and Peter Mcilvenna have been suspended. This group seems to want to follow our previous self-destructive path.
Speaking to NEC members privately, and later confirmed in the Q&A, I was dumbstruck to learn that they believe a split of the party is now almost ‘inevitable’. We have a situation where the NEC refuses to approve Richard’s appointments of Liz Philipps as chair (suspended from the party for a year) and Gerard Batten as Deputy Leader. No legal challenge has emanated because the NEC is operating within the rules of the Constitution.
The question for you Kippers is this, and this comes back to my objective in attending the conference. Should the leader, who has a mandate of 53% of the membership vote be allowed to pick his team and steer the party in his chosen direction? Or should the NEC (also an elected body) be allowed to do what it has always done – as its unwritten raison d’etre
– which is to protect the party from straying from its core values?
The answer, I suggest, depends on what you want UKIP to be. Do you want it to be a radical party to the right of the Conservatives (not really that difficult) offering an alternative vision with common-sense policies (what Neil Hamilton at the conference called ‘policies that matter to people’)? Or do you want it to wander off into the wilderness – and electoral oblivion and political irrelevance - led by high priests who worship at the altar of Tommy Robinson?
I know what I want. A lot will depend on the forthcoming NEC elections in October when seven places of are up for grabs. Who we elect will probably shape the party’s future. So fellow UKIP colleagues, maybe think about voting this time? 80% of you did not in the leadership election!
If the NEC is taken over by the Tommy Robinson faction, I personally would wait and see what happens. But if there was a return to UKIP being a Tommy Robinson support act I can see that many people would leave the party, as they have done recently.
If the ‘moderate’ wing of the party retains control of the NEC, I hope that common-sense prevails and that a compromise can be reached between the leader and NEC. Let’s be smart. UKIP can act as a magnet for disaffected Brexit Party members when it eventually and inevitably dissolves after Brexit is delivered. Many will be returning Kippers. We can re-build the party with exciting policies that ‘matter to people’ and start being relevant again. But this magnetism won’t exist if we’re seen as the media currently portray us – toxic. Currently, we must accept that we are politically radioactive.
The opportunity for us is there. Don’t be fooled by the Tory party. Brexit aside, it’s gone ‘woke’ and Boris Johnson is a social liberal and soft on immigration. That will be the soft underbelly that we can begin the attack.
To steal a phrase that has reared its head again recently, what unites us is greater than what divides us. I have some colleagues in my branch and in next door branches who don’t share my views expressed here. Outside Parliament, I meet with decent UKIP people who are in Integrity or support Robinson and we get on well – we just agree to disagree. I met Gerard last year and had 15 minutes privately with him, I liked him. I still do. He has years of experience and was a founding member and that counts. Richard I know even less, but he’s a gifted colleague, who if he makes the right decision can take us back to political relevance. We just need to be smart, people.
So let’s get Brexit done and then Make UKIP Great Again.