Watching the rapid growth of UKIP over the last two years has been fascinating.
Electoral gains have been followed by attempts at “professionalising” parts of the party’s operations, which have helped fuel further advances; rising membership, new councillors and even its first elected Members of Parliament.
Expansion at such breakneck speed has its drawbacks. The growing pains the party is now experiencing will only be exacerbated by the general election campaign. How it copes will undoubtedly be of huge interest to politicos – but the big question is how it may affect perceptions among voters. Here are three areas UKIP’s growing pains may hurt the most during the election.
1. Party organisation
Evidence of these aches and pains have been on show this week regarding its manifesto. In January last year, party leader Nigel Farage declared their 2010 manifesto was “drivel”, “junk” and “500 pages too long”. This time around, things don’t seem to be going much smoother. Tim Aker has been dropped from his role as policy chief for failing to finish the 2015 manifesto on time. One main reason for this must be Mr Aker’s other commitments; he was elected as an MEP last year and is also the parliamentary candidate in Thurrock, a top target for UKIP. It’s a danger for any small party with big aspirations; its core group end up being stretched further and further. In fact, Aker’s replacement is another parliamentary candidate, Suzanne Evans. The election campaign will place even greater demands on their top team – a number of whom have dual roles – each playing a part that is vital to smooth operations and election performance. Mark Wallace has an in-depth look at them on ConHome.
2. Consistent messaging to attract new voters
I’ve blogged recently about why we can expect repetitive messaging from parties during the campaign. The press hate this and as a result will, more than ever, look for stories about inconsistencies between senior figures in the same party. There was never really a danger of this before because UKIP only had one senior figure, Nigel Farage. Now, by-election winners Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless have joined Comms-chief-turned-MEP Patrick O’Flynn in providing UKIP with capable spokesmen for journos to go to. Carswell in particular seems a good bet – he’s already gone “off message” with an interview in the Mail on Sunday which has been picked up on as unhelpful to Farage by Guido and Nick Wood. UKIP will downplay the differences but Carswell seems determined to go his own way. In December Farage defended the use of the word “chinky” to describe Chinese people. The following week Carswell wrote an article for the Mail saying, “Far from being a party that tolerates pejorative comments about people’s heritage and background, Ukip has to show that we have serious internationalist agenda”.
Let’s be clear – UKIP’s core supporters will not give a toss if Carswell says something different to Farage or vice versa. But if UKIP want to be more than a protest party and want to win parliamentary seats in May, they need to appeal to a wider range of voters. For this, being seen as a credible party is crucial. Disagreements about policy, or the outlook and direction of the party, will harm this.
3. Targeting most winnable seats
With the rise in the party’s fortunes has come a rise in expectations. The by-election victories were of huge significance, dominating the news agenda for weeks and weeks. Securing its first elected MPs, while a real breakthrough, nonetheless means failure to hold onto these seats would be a massive blow. So too if they come up short in South Thanet (for Farage) and don’t manage to capture any of their other 11 target seats. Vital to winning any of their target seats will be, well, targeting.
The other three main parties plough vast proportions of their resources into a carefully chosen number of seats, leaving others to run relatively token campaigns in less winnable constituencies. UKIP’s transition from a protest party shouting from the sidelines to being serious players at the table will depend on their ability to control election efforts from the centre: marshalling manpower and money to where it has the greatest chance of yielding results. At the moment it appears the party is failing this challenge. By seeking to put up candidates against even Eurosceptic Conservative MPs (81 defied the whip in October 2011 to vote in favour of an EU referendum), UKIP will be spending £40,500 on deposits it will only get back after 7 May. Even a basic campaign in such seats will cost in the region of £3,000 per constituency, so that’s £283,500 that won’t be spent trying to win in its target seats.
Looking further afield, will the party be happy with gaining 15% of the national vote – but winning no seats – by putting up a candidate all 650 seats at a cost of £2million? Or would it rather spend that £2million more efficiently and see a gang of UKIP MPs enter the House of Commons ready to make alliances with Eurosceptic MPs from other parties? It appears to be veering strongly towards the former. This may of course be either by accident (because of a lack of control from the centre) or by design (amateurish decsion making at the centre), but either way no credible party goes into a general election campaign without a genuine target seats operation.
James Kirkup gave an excellent overview of the debate about the leaders’ debates last night.
Will they actually happen this time round? At the moment it looks like they will not. The live TV debates – politics’ version of a proper punch up – are extremely important, which is why all political parties are fighting to secure every advantage possible. It’s therefore easy to see why the commentary so far focuses on these manoeuvrings and not the blatant unfairness being dished out to the Green Party.
So far, four parties are being touted for live debates to be televised on the BBC, ITV and Sky. Joining the three usual heavyweights of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats will be new contenders UKIP. Their inclusion owes itself to a recent intervention from Ofcom.
Last week the broadcasting watchdog published a consultation on which parties should be accorded the status of a "major party" ahead of May’s general election. Having punched above their weight in recent Parliamentary by-elections, as well as enjoying continued polling success, UKIP’s top pugilist Nigel Farage has been allowed to enter the ring. However, Ofcom also ruled that the Green Party did not, in their view, merit the title of a major party and have therefore been knocked out of the debates.
This doesn’t seem to make sense when you consider Ofcom’s own criteria for their decision. It appears being a major party depends on two things. One – evidence of past electoral support during the 2010 general election and the other types of election since. Two – evidence of current support according to opinion polling.
On the first measure, the Green Party in 2010 made a major breakthrough in securing the election of its first MP. UKIP did not. In the elections between 2010 and now, the Greens secured more MEPs than the Lib Dems. In terms of current polling, Ofcom has used opinion polls regardless of whether they name each party equally or list UKIP and the Greens as “others”. It therefore cannot be a fair comparison with the main parties, but even so the Greens in December were polling almost 6% to the Lib Dems’ 8.5%.
Given the Greens are in touching distance of the Lib Dems on a number of important measures, it’s not clear why Ofcom ruled them out. But you can see why Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will not want them included. So too, for that matter, will Labour leader Ed Miliband. Anecdotal evidence from Labour party activists suggests that former Lib Dems voters, especially in London, are going to the Greens and not Labour.
For all Clegg and Miliband’s bluster about David Cameron “running scared” for refusing to take part if the Greens are excluded, at least Cameron has another party’s interests in mind as well as his own. As for their own reasons for not including the Greens, it is pure self-interest. Let’s hope that all five parties accept the invite from the Telegraph, Guardian and Google to hold a digital debate.
On a separate note, the Greens having their leader Natalie Bennett excluded from the debates may have advantages all of its own. For one, Bennett is not a seasoned media performer and would likely struggle to convince in a live debate against Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage. Second, being excluded from the mainstream debates would feed perfectly into the image the Greens are cultivating as an alternative to the established parties. Perhaps they might be wise to start complaining more loudly once the format of the debates have already been settled.
Update 1: 72% say let Greens into leadership debates (Guido)
Update 2: Green Party membership set to overtake UKIP's (Independent)