The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been suffering from internal tensions for some time. The party is fundamentally divided between those with a socially conservative outlook, and those with a more libertarian perspective.
On top of this, and as can been seen with all political parties, there is an increasing generational split. As an example, roughly 60 per cent of the UK population now supports gay marriage. When under-30s are polled on the issue, support is closer to 80 per cent.
UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, has actively encouraged the party’s libertarian label. He has advocated drug decriminalisation, opposed anti-tobacco legislation, and supported the right of local people to decide whether fox hunting should be permitted.
In many policy areas, however, UKIP look far more like right-wing populists. They seek to double the UK prison population, increase the police budget, and spend more on national defence. These policies, though perfectly reasonable in themselves, are hard to reconcile with the commonly understood definition of libertarianism.
UKIP officially supports Civil Partnerships, but not any change in the law that would allow gay marriage. Yet this policy does not sit comfortably with many in UKIP’s youth-wing, Young Independence.
Olly Neville – the recently elected Chairman of Young Independence – was sacked for airing his personal views on both gay marriage and the significance of European Elections. This led to a ‘Twitter storm’, with many lambasting the party leadership’s authoritarian approach.
It is arguable that the sacking of Olly Neville was given more publicity than it deserved. UKIP is a party with no Westminster seats that relies heavily on the charisma and popularity of its leader.
The Neville affair is important insofar as it brings to the surface the deep divisions within UKIP. For many years, UKIP was a single issue party. Its activists were happy to rant about the excesses of the EU, but when it came to domestic policies, they drew a blank.
More recently, the party has developed a comprehensive manifesto, covering all policy areas. This has made the party more mainstream and more electable. Opinion polls suggest UKIP is headed in the right direction electorally (achieving 16 per cent in recent polls). Yet this has also, necessarily, opened the party up to internal debate and division.
The problem for Mr Farage is that his message about UKIP being an open party that encourages free thinking is being discredited. UKIP cannot maintain its libertarian image when members are sacked for espousing libertarian views.
UKIP is also in danger of alienating its young activists – those expected to be on the ground campaigning and, in years to come, standing for election themselves. A string of Young Independence members have resigned from their elected positions over #Ollyshambles, with more expected to follow suit. This is an extremely unhealthy position for the party to be in, to say nothing of the negative publicity.
If UKIP does not put its house in order quickly, it risks living up to David Cameron’s comments that the party is just a “bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.”
UKIP cannot be both socially conservative and libertarian – serious decisions must be made about which direction the party is to take.