A few months ago, UKIP’s website offered a one line description of itself as “a libertarian, non-racist party seeking withdrawal from the European Union”. At some point between then and now, that description changed. It now reads: “UKIP is a patriotic party that promotes independence: from the EU, and from government interference”. A subtle difference, but a notable one. UKIP has abandoned its claim to represent a ‘libertarian’ political ideology.
This shift was confirmed at the weekend by the party’s Economic spokesperson, Patrick O’Flynn. In a discussion on the NHS, O’Flynn told the BBC’s Any Questions programme that UKIP opposed moving from the current system of nationalised healthcare towards private healthcare insurance, attacking “Right-wing ultra-libertarian think tanks” who have backed such an idea.
This is interesting for two reasons. UKIP’s increasing need to appeal to Left-wing Labour voters, particularly in the north of England, means the party can no longer risk being seen as anything other than staunch defenders of the NHS. This is evident in the appointment of Louise Bours as its new Health spokesperson. Bours is a UKIP MEP, and has a whole page on the party’s website devoted to “standing up for the NHS”.
That is a considerable change from the previous position outlined by UKIP’s deputy leader, Paul Nuttall, who wrote on his website: “I would argue that the very existence of the NHS stifles competition, and as competition drives quality and choice, innovation and improvements are restricted. Therefore, I believe, as long as the NHS is the ‘sacred cow’ of British politics, the longer the British people will suffer with a second-rate health service.”
The piece has now been deleted and O’Flynn insists this was never UKIP policy. But this was not some random UKIP supporter on Twitter. It is the view of the second most important person in the party. For political reasons, such views can no longer be aired publicly by UKIP politicians
Perhaps more interesting, however, is the change in rhetoric. UKIP is now openly attacking people who it considers “libertarian”, something only a few months ago the party itself claimed to be. It is also attacking people it considers to be “Right-wing”, something the vast majority of UKIP’s core support would consider themselves to be.
Ryan Bourne, head of public policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs, whose opinion any self-respecting fiscal conservative would place above that of a UKIP spokesperson, says: “Patrick should know better than to throw “Right-wing” around [regarding] anything he doesn’t like”. When did UKIP become an enemy of libertarians? When did UKIP become an enemy of the Right?
Of course, many would argue that UKIP’s claims to be a libertarian party were always tenuous. Demanding stricter immigration laws is hardly conducive to a libertarian open borders policy, for example. Yet it is also true that the party has lost a considerable amount of support from libertarian-leaning people in the last two years, people who made up an important core only a couple of years ago, who have now left the party in disgust.
When I asked Nigel Farage recently about O’Flynn’s proposal for a new super tax on luxury goods, the UKIP leader seemed as if it was the first he had heard of it. Two days later, Farage scrapped the policy. What he did tell me was significant, however: “The country’s got a big, big problem and in the course of the last decade the ‘rich’ have got remarkably richer. I think Patrick is taking us in a slightly different direction and I think that is a recognition and a realisation that for millions of people life is a lot worse now that it was ten years ago”.
Farage was confirming that UKIP is going in a “different direction”, away from what O’Flynn calls “Right-wing” and “libertarian”, towards a more statist, Labour-friendly set of policies and rhetoric. You can understand why, of course, with the party looking to pick up Labour votes in the north. But it will be interesting to see how much support it loses from its previous base on the Right in the process.