That UKIP is a party of contradictions is news to no one within the bubble, and something I have written about here previously.
The party once attracted predominantly former Conservatives, both of small ‘c’ and large ‘C’ ilk. With the golf club lobby safely on-board, disillusioned with Cameron’s wetness and Conservative modernisation, Farage drew in the classical liberals and some libertarians with promises of lower taxes, school vouchers – then replaced with a commitment to grammar schools, a sensible energy policy, freedom from Europe, maybe even legalisation of some recreational drugs.
All this, underpinned by a steady stream of support for civil liberties, a smaller state and common sense, brought in new and often young members in their droves.
But then a phenomenon happened, and UKIP broke into the mainstream. From a steady 3-5 percent, support surged and the party was forced to grow up with its poll ratings.
Rather than stick to their solid principles and economic liberalism, UKIP took the bait and started chasing votes from wherever they could get them, to the bemusement of many an established member – the thinking sort at least, many of whom have quietly stepped away, not the dogmatic types recognisable by their “‘my name’ – UKIP” or pound sign Twitter avatars.
As we saw before the European elections, UKIP started talking less to the blue-rinse and louder to the blue collars. Mentions of a flat rate of income tax and the abolition of the death tax became suspiciously rare and instead UKIP lurched to the left, criticising zero-hour contracts and opposing the bedroom tax, both of which antagonised the classical liberal wing and positively stung us few remaining libertarians.
Yet, it worked. UKIP’s membership continued to grow and far from supporting UKIP’s traditional laissez-faire economic approach, a YouGov poll from last October suggested that over 70 per cent of members support nationalisation of the railways and energy companies.
Far from supporting a flat tax, 57 per cent support the reintroduction of the 50p rate; celebrating new councillors back in May could be heard heaping praise of UKIP’s policy of ring-fencing NHS spending. Worse yet, a new UKIP MEP took the fifty year anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty as opportunity to call for its reintroduction. Even I gasped at that shocker.
So is Farage’s party becoming politically astute or just populist in the extreme? The problem becoming apparent to UKIP is that with its increasing success the party is increasingly under the microscope and they cannot be all things to all men forever.
One day, fairly soon, UKIP must publish a full, costed manifesto setting out their principles, their policies and indeed where their true political allegiances lie, to the individual or to the collectivist, the free market liberals or the protectionist old Tories.
And never has this internal divide been quite as pronounced as this week, when within hours UKIP produced two polar-opposite statements in reaction to the same government policy.
Early this week the government published yet another phenomenally illiberal yet fantastically populist proposal to tackle the “problem” of immigrant workers, act 43 of their desperate attempt to bolt that stable door and stop UKIP stealing ‘their’ votes.
Osborne plans to strip temporary workers of their right to use the £10,000 tax-free personal allowance, meaning they will earn 20 percent less than their British counterparts. Once again, this is not legal under EU law, but then most recent government proposals aren’t.
So, a UKIP friendly policy, surely, given opposition to immigration is one of the final remaining policy the party can agree on? Apparently not.
A statement in response, under the name of Steven Woolfe MEP, UKIP’s immigration spokesman, caused my heart to leap in hope that the UKIP of old had returned. Of course we oppose this policy, he said, the plan is “a breach of the essential idea of fair play and the rule of law… it is outrageous that they propose to make two people doing exactly the same job pay different tax rates.
This is an attempt to penalise migrants, rather than accept that the failings of migration are their own fault. It is reminiscent of the monstrous “racist immigration vans idea…” and bravo to Mr Woolfe. The proposals are an affront to traditional British values of equality before the law and another attempt to blame the migrants not the system the government supports.
However, hope was swiftly dashed. Patrick O’Flynn, former Political Editor of the UKIP Times, otherwise known as the Daily Express, and current UKIP MEP and “Economics Spokesman” has pulled rank and the principled stance has done a 180 degree flip back to neo-UKIP working-man, migrant hating populism.
Patrick supports the government because he thinks it is wrong that migrant workers can come, work then leave without tax; a carbon copy of the government line. However, whilst politically sensible this goes against almost all previous UKIP positions on basic rule of law and leaves a rather nasty taste.
Of course, the real story is about pragmatism not principle; plain and simple, UKIP want to win votes, they want to win seats. The new MEPs are pulling rank over long standing party officials and saying whatever it takes to get votes, in the bid to get themselves into the Westminster parliament. In this bid, UKIP becomes like a usual political party, moving away from its charm and genuine appeal by sacrificing the change it promised to bring.
Principles are important but they do indeed come at a price, and without a foot in the game UKIP simply cannot play. But for how long can the party be everything to everyone before internal divides lead to external splits. These are exciting yet difficult times for the party; nobody ever said success was easy.
But a nice start might be, at the very least, to get the official spokespeople on the same page. This could very easily have become rather an embarrassing public spat. I believe this is what Matthew Goodwin referred to as the ‘revolt of the right’.