It was oddly providential timing that I read Matthew Parris’ column in today’s Times (£) the morning after finishing Militant, Michael Crick’s seminal study of everyone’s favourite Trotskyite entrists.
For Parris fears that the Conservatives may soon be faced with an entrist challenge of its very own: from UKIP.
His anxiety has been sparked by a debate within the upper echelons of the party about a substantial reorganisation and rebrand after the EU referendum.
Apparently Nigel Farage wants to shift the People’s Army towards the model of an online movement, inspired by Five Star in Italy. This would allow, amongst other things, a “direct democracy approach with members being able to vote on policies and ideas online”.
More significantly from a Tory perspective, he claims this would “take away the need to have a national executive committee and a political structure”.
Whilst Matthew Goodwin, the academic and long-term UKIP-watcher, treats this as simply a party reorganisation, Parris has read between the lines and spotted that without a “political structure” UKIP might not actually remain a party at all.
If it rebranded as a sort of ‘sovereignty alliance’, and stopped contesting elections, there would be nothing to prevent its members from joining or rejoining the mainstream parties.
As Parris writes: “Those many thousands of local Tory members who defected to Ukip (sometimes to sighs of relief from their Tory MP) could return to plague constituency Conservative associations and strongarm candidate selections.”
He doesn’t mention, although the thought must surely have occurred to him, that an energised and well-coordinated phalanx of Brexiteer activists could also play a distorting, perhaps decisive, role in the upcoming leadership race.
Is this scenario likely? And if it is, would it warrant Parris’ description of it as a “virus”?
The connexion between UKIP and the Conservatives is not as clear cut as many think. Thanks in large part to the research of people like Goodwin, we now know that Farage’s party draws a very substantial chunk of its support from disillusioned, white, working-class voters who used to vote Labour, if they voted at all.
As the party has recognised this it has gradually started to shift away from the libertarian, ur-Thatcherite positions often associated with it and to morph into a sort of ‘national democratic’ party. Indeed, if it remains a separate party then ‘National Democrats’ would be as good an ideological label for a rebranded UKIP as any.
Suffice to say, these voters have huge cultural barriers to engaging with the Conservatives, even if their embrace of UKIP shows that they have no problem with right-wing politics per se. It’s hard to see even Farage leading these voters to the Tories.
This means that the sort of mass entry feared by Parris seems at once less likely to happen and, if it does, the post-UKIP entity inside the party would very likely be substantially weaker, at least numerically, than the current, independent party.
If, that is, UKIP made the mistake of focusing solely on the Conservatives. There is an alternative.
There would be nothing to stop a non-partisan sovereignty group from having a Labour wing. Indeed Grassroots Out, UKIP’s preferred referendum campaign vehicle, has taken pains to secure one, led by Kate Hoey.
If a big chunk of Labour’s voters support Brexit, then accommodating the views of those voters will be a necessary part of the party’s attempt to reconnect with them if they are to address criticisms from outfits like Blue Labour that the Parliamentary Labour Party has grown too unrepresentative of a big chunk of the party’s core vote.
Militant’s experience in the 1980s – and Unite’s more recently – suggest that an active, organised, and committed group can get people selected in areas where Labour is deeply entrenched and organisationally moribund.
This adds a new dimension to UKIP’s current strength in such places, such as South Wales.
If the result of June’s referendum is a relatively close-run defeat for Leave, then euroscepticism is not going to go away but will have to fundamentally rethink its strategic approach.
The current model has proved over-dependent on the Conservatives and UKIP, two parties seen as on one side of the political spectrum and each a polarising force with certain sections of the electorate.
Moreover, the British electoral system means that the latter is finding it impossible to make its breakthrough into national politics, and whilst its ex-Tory nature is overstated there can be no doubt that the defection of many former Conservatives has served mainly to strengthen the position of liberals like Parris (and David Cameron).
With that track record, it isn’t hard to see how UKIP’s leadership and sponsors might see that all their time, effort, and money might be more effectively spent trying to influence the two major parties.
Some successor to GO! could reinforce the eurosceptic wing of the Tories whilst harnessing UKIP’s (and Hoey’s) cut-through with Labour and ex-Labour voters to nurture a larger caucus of ‘Labour Leave’ supporters for the next referendum.
After all, the SNP have already demonstrated what can be achieved if you harness the enthusiastic activist base and organisational infrastructure of a referendum and successfully redirect it into normal politics.
In fairness, it should be noted that there is a world of difference between even a well-organised pressure group and genuine entrism, the Militant-style “a party within a party”, or “shadowy outline of a group within a group”, which stalks Parris’ recent, slightly fevered columns. Big parties are broad churches and contain many groups of varying size and cohesion.
But if he will insist on viewing the matter through the prism of infections and invasion, at least Labour’s experience has furnished him with a reading list.