With the angry outpouring of comments from over 1000 members, activists and supporters on the UKIP Facebook page over Nigel Farage’s view that the UK should accept Syrian refugees, it was only a matter of time until the UKIP leader was forced to change his stance. His quick re-think, that the UK should be accepting Christian refugees only, has won over many of those angry and upset at his previous stance, though many are still not happy.
Farage may be one of the first politicians forced to alter a stance due to comments on his Facebook wall, but it is unlikely that this will be the last time he has to do it. Like him or loathe him Farage himself is no racist, or Islamophobe. Whilst I strongly disagree with his views on restricting immigration, his view is not based on prejudice or hatred for others. Indeed his immigration policy is cleverly worded, promising a freeze on permanent settlement but an allowance for an unset and theoretically infinite number of work permits and temporary migrants.
Farage, however, has chosen to lead his party in a direction which unfortunately has attracted many people who are not as tolerant as he is. When he first took back the reigns of power after the 2010 election there was a hope that Farage might lead UKIP in a more liberal direction; his rejection of the Burkha ban policy and his personal beliefs on drug and prostitution legalisation was a promising start.
Unfortunately, with the Conservatives in power, the UKIP leadership made a calculated decision that their fastest route to votes and power was by appealing to Tory voters. These were the most likely to be dissatisfied now their party had taken the helm and had to act rather than just make promises. Political principle was twisted to suit electoral aims. For example, equal marriage, before a conscience issue, suddenly became a primary concern. The party changed its position to vociferously oppose the policy, hoping to attack unhappy Tory voters, and further show separation from ‘LibLabCon’ who all agreed on the issue. So too with other policies; the 2010 UKIP manifesto promised two new high speed rail lines, but with the main parties agreeing on HS2 suddenly it became another potentially separating issue. Immigration became the party’s main issue, overtaking the EU in prominence on leaflets and in discussion, with the subtle policy of work permits over ridden by the headline policy of a total freeze. Indeed Farage scrapped the flat tax policy live on Question Time in a move to distance himself from seeming too positive towards the wealthy, pushing again for UKIP’s working class, socially conservative base. Talk of huge cuts, which UKIP promised in 2010 and Farage demanded after the election, have also been slowly dropped with UKIP campaigning against the ‘bedroom tax’ and local council cuts.
This short term politicking has worked well for UKIP. They surged in the polls in 2013, smashing past the Liberal Democrats and pushing towards 20%. They managed to capture many socially conservative voters, mainly from the Tories but Labour too. But these gains did not come without a price. Initially it was the forgoing of the parties’s much talked about libertarian principles and credentials, with members and activists with libertarian leanings exiting the party or taking backseat roles. Furthermore, it was a short term benefit for potential long term costs. UKIP does significantly better amongst older people than the young, and with the rise of Generation Y, who are more free market and socially liberal than any previous generation, that looks unlikely to change. UKIP has chased the older, socially conservative voter, a wise short-term move as it is a demographic that is much more likely to vote, but a questionable long term strategy. The positions they have taken in order to chase this demographic have alienated many younger members as well as making them the party most people would never vote for.
This move has had another impact, which has been seen with Farage’s forced U-turn. UKIP now has built its core around people with very strong views on areas such as immigration. Any attempt to move away from these areas is met with a bitter backlash from the party faithful and risks bringing down the carefully built support. Put simply, Farage is unable to reach out to other voter types without putting off his core and, as building trust with other voters takes time, UKIP cannot afford the inevitable greater losses than gains.
The party’s hope certainly is that this short term support will give them the number 1 spot in 2014 and a decent number of MPs in 2015 from which they can build on and, with more media exposure, reach out to enough new voters to replace those upset with any change in direction. But it is a dangerous gamble and one that if it doesn’t pay off will see UKIP stuck with very little ability to change and a declining voter base. Of course if it pays off the party could see itself seriously challenge the Lib Dems for third place at Westminster by 2020.
UKIP’s movement towards social conservatism made the backlash at Farage’s comments inevitable. Their ability to change the party image will come at great cost in terms of activists and voters up until 2015, where the party will hope to finally make the break through it has always been threatening to. Until then, when it comes to policy like refugees, immigration and other socially liberal views, Farage will have to accept that he has built a very socially conservative bed, and that he has to lie in it.