Alexandra Swann examines the current divide in UKIP between libertarians and social conservatives.
UKIP’s constitution claims “UKIP is a democratic, libertarian party”, but to what extent is this true?
I, for one, joined not because of their rejection of Britain’s membership of the European Union, but because of their seemingly libertarian principles including low taxation, a commitment to personal freedoms ̶ via opposition to blanket bans on smoking/hunting ̶ and local government policies designed to hand power back to local people, such as binding planning referenda. Indeed, my maiden speech to the Party back in March 2012, in the fabulous town of Skegness, ended by thanking UKIP for their commitment to freedom “not just from the EU, but freedom from the nanny state, freedom from excessive taxation, freedom from needless, damaging bureaucracy, but most of all freedom for the individual.”
But as UKIP grows both in the polls and in members, questions emerge as to the Party’s commitment to its own constitution.
In all successful political parties there are divisions; Labour had Brown vs Blair, the Conservatives are split between Thatcherites and Cameroons, the Liberal Democrats still house a few true liberals such as David Laws amongst the sea of the Cable-esque redistributors. And so, we see within UKIP the conflict between social conservatives and libertarians: essentially the majority of our voters, some of our MEPs and a large proportion of our membership over 50 versus Young Independence, Nigel himself and almost all of those who write our policies.
Indeed my experience running in the May local elections taught me how few of our voters are aware that we are “libertarian”. On the doorstep, time and time again, former Conservatives praised UKIP for its opposition to immigration and equal marriage – and not on grounds of religious tolerance; biting my tongue, smiling and nodding became second nature.
Not to over-egg the pudding, UKIP remains united on key issues: lowering and simplifying taxation, supporting social mobility through grammar schools, increasing defence spending yet tapering the Palmerstonian (despite lacking the international dominance or panache required for success) attitude toward foreign policy exhibited by recent governments, and, of course, exiting the EU.
However, with success comes scrutiny and a series of embarrassing incidents have found the Party’s libertarian credentials lacking; back in May, Farage called in to question our commitment to a flat rate of income tax, and months later the Party opposed equal marriage (albeit on grounds of religious tolerance) then sacked Olly Neville, then Chairman of Young Independence, for voicing a different view. The Party also plans to double the prison population and increase police spending, all the while placing a worrying emphasis on immigration. After reading much of UKIP’s current literature, one would be forgiven for thinking that come January next year there will be a Bulgarian under your bed and a Romanian on every roof.
After reading much of UKIP’s current literature, one would be forgiven for thinking that come January next year there will be a Bulgarian under your bed and a Romanian on every roof.
Last week, UKIP published a list of candidates who will face the national ballot in order to determine their position on the Euro 2014 regional lists (notably, the NEC is able to tamper with this at will). I didn’t make it to the final 60 which was somewhat disappointing but, given that I am 25 and about to head back to university to retrain as a psychologist, hardly heartbreaking.
Undoubtedly, if you are interested in which direction UKIP high command envisages the Party moving, the list elucidates. There are a few brilliant and talented libertarians in there, such as Tim Aker, Michael Heaver and Tony Brown (all notably already in the Party’s employ) yet failure to purge the Party of extreme social conservatives panders to the social cons.
As UKIP continues to go from strength to strength, tensions between the libertarian and socially conservative wings must be resolved if the Party is to surpass its inevitable victory in 2014 and finally break in to Westminster in 2015 – vital if they intend to cement their position as a mainstream political party.
From a personal perspective, I joined a party of principle and can only hope the lures of power don’t cause these principles to slide into a quagmire of populist social conservatism. If this happens then, as in the case of Olly Neville, bad decisions will cause an exodus of young talent. What UKIP must remember is that while older people, who are more likely to vote, tend to be socially conservative, they will not be around forever; as a relatively young party we cannot abandon the principles that made us so attractive to join or after a few years in the sun we will be consigned to the dustbin of failed political movements. I truly hope that those with the power make the right decision.