As we head into Ukip conference, the party has put out on its website a manifesto statement by Policy chief Tim Aker MEP in which he reiterates that “We’re beyond left-right, authoritarian-libertarian–those arguments are for university common rooms.” This was a claim first made by Aker in an interview with Prospect Magazine over the summer, and it appears to be one that he’s quite keen on.
The phrase drips with irony (although it’s not intended to). It’s hard to think of a claim more likely to be made in a university common room than “we’re beyond left-right, authoritarian-libertarian”, except perhaps something like “Wow, this poetry is meta. It’s, like, post-post-modern.” In other words it’s completely meaningless. Unless Aker has hit upon some sort of parallel universe in which the political laws of physics don’t apply, the only place that is neither left nor right, neither libertarian nor authoritarian is very well known: it’s commonly called ‘the centre ground’. Unfortunately, others have discovered it before him.
Presumably Aker is using the phrase because the party wants to appeal to all-comers. Sick of being labelled as ‘more Tory than the Tory party’ (or worse), Ukip is – understandably – making a play for voters who viscerally despise the Conservatives, in order to prove that it is truly a party in its own right.
And in a country in which the vast majority of people are fed up with politicians and the political classes, it is of course expedient to position the party as being ‘anti-political’ or ‘post-political’. It’s a way of saying “a plague on all your houses” without having to include your own.
As long as your party isn’t called upon to govern, it’s not the poorest of strategies. As James Delingpole has pointed out on these pages, it worked well for the Liberal Democrats over the years: “if it’s a Muslim constituency, their candidate will tend to drape himself in the black flag of the Islamic State and demand the restoration of the Caliphate; if it’s in a seaside constituency full of pensioners, he’ll demand massive public subsidies for tea dances, bridge evenings and zimmer frames. In cheap, low-down, vote-catch terms, [this makes] a sort of sense”.
But the coalition government has put paid to any notion that it can be a long term strategy, or one that can be employed by a party that seeks to form at least part of a government, as Ukip does. Since coming to power the Liberal Democrats have imploded. Their standing in the polls has plummeted from a high of 34 percent just before the election to hover around eight percent. They hung on to their only MEP at the European elections in May by just 16 votes.
And attempts by David Cameron to lead a Conservative offensive onto the centre ground have met with equally dismal results. His claims that he would lead the “greenest government ever”, that he was supporting gay marriage “because [he is] a Conservative” and that he is “a feminist” have been met only with derision from the left, while his party base has crumbled beneath him.
The lesson to be learnt is that the British despise their political masters precisely because they seek to be all things to all people, not despite that fact.
In modern times, the left have turned the word “ideology”, when applied to ideologies of the right, into a dirty word. The Conservative chancellor George Osborne seems particularly averse – Janan Ganesh described him as “almost physically allergic to ideology”. It’s a claim that has merit. In 2010 just after introducing the ‘austerity budget’ Osborne went out of his way time and time again to stress that the cuts were not ideologically motivated. In typical statement from him, given to the House of Commons in October 2010 during Treasury Questions, he said “I have to say, however, that if we do not tackle the deficit, every job in the country will be under threat. That is the point. We are not doing this because we want to; there is no ideological zeal in doing this. We are doing this because we have to.”
Yet it never seemed to occur to either Osborne or his Conservative colleagues to challenge the Labour opposition on their ideological commitment to high spending. They never appear to challenge Labour leader Ed Miliband on his confirmed commitment to the ideology of socialism. They will willingly call him a socialist, but an ideologue? Well, that’s just something a polite chap simply doesn’t do.
Yet a coherent ideology is essential if a party is not to appear to be double crossing. Take Ukip’s commitment to “abolish the bedroom tax”. Firstly, by calling it a bedroom tax they’re playing into the rhetoric of the BBC and Labour. The policy was introduced to encourage people living in social housing with more rooms than they strictly needed to move to a house more suitable for their needs, so freeing up the larger homes for larger families. As the incentive was in the form of lower welfare payments, the financial aspect was never a ‘tax’ (it wasn’t the recipients money in the first place), but a reduction in subsidy.
Secondly, how does this square against Ukip’s claim to be on the side of “people that want to aspire to achieve absolutely anything”? Why should those working hard to achieve their aspirations pay for larger housing for those who are quite happy to stay on welfare? In the post-political world of Ukip, an answer comes there none. But in the minds of the voters there will be an answer. They’ll simply conclude that Ukip are like all the others: willing to say anything to win a vote.
It’s a pity because if Ukip were clever about it, they could simply form their own ideology. With all the other parties crowding onto the authoritarian centre ground, there’s certainly enough space in the libertarian side of the spectrum to do so. On the bedroom tax policy, for example, the reason that the policy failed under this government was that there simply weren’t enough one and two bedroom houses for people to move into, so they were forced to get by on a smaller benefit cheque because their council wouldn’t rehome them, which led to outrage. This ought to have been a golden opportunity for Ukip to demand a liberalisation of planning laws to encourage house building, something that will help drive prices down in both the social and private property sectors whilst not contradicting Ukip’s commitment to support those who support themselves. Yet instead they chose to treat the Labour and Conservative manifestos as a pick’n’mix in order to lure voters in with a cynical promise to be neither Labour nor Conservative.
Ukip are set to win the by-election at Clacton on the 9th October, and are rumoured to be giving Labour a run for their money in the Heywood and Middleton by-election to be held on the same day. If they win both they will be well placed to challenge the Liberal Democrats as kingmakers at the next election. In nine months’ time we could well see Ukip ministers in a coalition government. Unless they form some coherent ideas on what they believe in, that outcome could very well spell the end of Ukip.