There is a good reason for UKIP existing in UK politics. Its original raison d'etre, to support UK withdrawal from the EU, is a position that was ridiculed for so long by the three major parties. Indeed, it was long thought that the Conservative Party was denying itself electoral victory by opposing the Euro and having a strong Eurosceptic wing to it.
Those days are long gone, and given EU attempts to expand regulation across business, spending on rent-seeking industries and its persistently unaudited accounts, there are sound reasons to promote leaving the EU on economic liberal grounds, and retention of sovereignty.
So there is a space for a party that seeks to leave the EU.
UKIP's views on immigration, which are decidedly not libertarian, are still views that no major party has been good at taking on. Support for a points based immigration system, that means migrants are clearly net contributors, is not racist or nationalistic, but likely to be acceptable to many who reject immigration for more unsavoury reasons (i.e. don't like foreigners, especially ones who work harder than me or for less money). Similarly, opposition to an absolute open door for migration from across the EU does have a sound basis in terms of managing the obvious claims to the welfare state, and being able to exclude convicted serious criminals.
Beyond that, the real potential for UKIP is to be the party to keep the Conservatives honest to certain key principles. Like less regulation rather than more. Like believing in not only fiscal responsibility, but in reducing public debt and the size of the state. Like promoting a simpler tax system, with lower rates. Like encouraging competition and choice in public services, and confining the welfare state to relieving poverty as a safety net, not providing support to people on middle incomes.
However, to do that UKIP needs three major internal steps to transform itself. These have become apparent in recent weeks with the dramatic growth in candidate numbers, and the symptoms of a party that has grown from a small bunch of enthusiasts to a large bunch of amateurs.
It has parallels to what happened to the BNP, which has had very brief bursts of popularity, but has long been so toxic, rightfully so, that is only attracted people who either wanted to join but retain a low profile, or those for whom BNP participation wouldn't ruin their employment or business prospects. That's because they weren't that good in the first place.
UKIP can be different. It does explicitly ban BNP, NF and EDL members from joining, but does so on an honour basis. However, it has a lot of people who have joined with little experience of politics and has developed an ad hoc approach to policy. It has a window of opportunity to change this. Criticism leading up to the county council elections will do little harm, but UKIP ought to be aiming to come first next year in the European elections, and do well in the larger scale local elections. To do this, it needs to ensure it harnesses what is good and negates what is bad:
1. Professionalise: That means press releases and statements are carefully managed and prepared. There needs to be consistency in what MEPs and Councillors say on major policy issues, and for publicity measures to be well timed and targeted. A recent policy release to scrap tolls (besides being misguided for several reasons) was totally swamped by being released on the same day as the Leveson agreement was being hammered out. A professional party publicity machine knows when to get media attention, knows how to do so and to ensure that the wider party participates.
2. Manage candidates: As delightful as it is to have many people wanting to be candidates, it is simply pathetic to complain that other parties and media can easily find when candidates have expressed views that are racist, anti-semitic or simply lunatic (keeping fit prevents homosexuality). It shouldn't be hard for someone to be employed spending an hour checking people's history, but more than that is needed. When there is no contest for candidacy, people only need vetting for an unsavoury past (including CRB checks - yes, seriously), but where there is a contest then there needs to be an effort to get candidates who can debate on the spot, who can respond to media queries and not get caught out (and not have lunatic conspiracy theory, bigoted or views that are blatantly contrary to party policy and principles).
3. Develop policies with common themes: As a former policy wonk, it would be very easy for me to write a massive suite of policies, but there need not be a lot, or be too complex. However, they do need to have some figures behind them. What's needed? Besides EU membership and immigration...
- Economic (including monetary, fiscal, tax and regulatory);
- Local government;
- Law and Order.
Others are "nice to have", but less important and not policies that most voters choose parties on. All of these need to demonstrate something different, something that promotes more individual responsibility, that rewards entrepreneurship and saving, not fecklessness and rent seeking. They need to support property rights, choice and less government interference, except for core state functions like defence and law and order. It should also reject new taxes and regulations for environmental goals that do not apply to the UK's competitors.
However, most of all it needs to be costed and not just consist of promises to spend more money and cut taxes. It needs to make it clear that EU withdrawal is not enough to save money. You can't abolish tuition fees. You can't maintain the welfare state as it stands. You oppose corporatism, big state projects and the creation of laws and regulatory frameworks that suit incumbents or the bureaucratic/political classes.
UKIP should be the party of individual responsibility, less government and independence over your own life, own business and own property. All of that is alien to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, although not many of their voters and it was the heart of the Conservatives.
4. Develop party disciplinary procedures: Establish formal spokespersons who are fully briefed on agreed policies. Make sure candidates have policy information and are expected to have a summary understanding of key policies. Allow candidates to have some range of views on policy, but not to openly oppose major policies. However, have a disciplinary committee for candidates who express bigoted views. You know them when you see them. They will be egregiously racist, sexist, homophobic, conspiracy theory laden or anti-semitic. Holocaust deniers, offensive stereotypers and the like ought to be purged. No, it's not about being politically correct, it is about treating everyone as an individual, judging behaviour not backgrounds.
Why is this important? Because you can't be a protest party forever. You will find yourself marginalised more and more for ever crackpot lunatic you have that appears as a candidate. You can't be seen as a vehicle for people who think the colour of skin, ethnicity, genitalia and preferred legal sexual partners of people are a reason in themselves for the state to treat people differently. More importantly, you need to be seen as a party that has solutions and will do politics differently, with a different philosophy.
Do all this, and you will be seen as serious, with a life that goes beyond Nigel Farage, and beyond EU scepticism. Avoid it, and you'll be fly by nighters, who lose thousands of interested supporters and members because they are not racist, sexist or interested in crackpot lunacy, or a party that simply offers contradictory rhetoric, and a vehicle for unsavoury, unhinged, stupid or incompetent people to get elected.
Be as mad as you like about the establishment. I'm angry too, I don't like the current government very much, and I despise the politics of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but that's just not enough.
Substance is needed, and you need to pay for it.