On what principle should one name a political party?
In the good old days, the main parties were named after various gangs of misbehaving celts (i.e. the Tories and Whigs). This was all a bit too silly for the high-minded Victorians, who opted for ideological labels instead (the Conservatives and Liberals). Moving into the 20th century, British communists and fascists followed suit, though British socialists and social democrats named themselves after the working class they claimed to represent – becoming the Labour Party.
In more recent decades, party labels have tended to focus on issues rather than ideologies – most notably in the case of the Green Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party. In an age that generally frowns upon ideology, but embraces single issue politics, issue-based names have enabled small parties to establish an electoral niche.
However such niches can be limiting. The Green Party, generally identified with environmental issues, has been unable to, er, capitalise on capitalism’s wider discontents. UKIP, too, were limited to their own Eurosceptic niche – doing well in European elections, but otherwise confined to the sidelines.
Last week was proof that UKIP has broken free. They have done so because they have established a relevance across a wide range of issues, not just Europe. But is there a coherent set of ideas that links these policy positions together? Some within UKIP, including Nigel Farage, claim that theirs is a libertarian party.
This, as you may have noticed, is nonsense. A halt to immigration, opposition to same sex marriage and a highly restrictive approach to planning policy may be good or bad things depending on your point of view; but one thing they are not is libertarian.
So what is UKIP all about, then? One of the best answers to that question can be found in a perceptive piece for Prospect by Max Wind-Cowie, which appeared before last week's election results:
- "It’s clear that UKIP’s appeal stretches far beyond blue-rinse golfers still mourning Thatcher’s exit from Number 10. And their second most successful media performer, deputy leader Paul Nuttall, provided some insight as to why white working-class voters might look to the party when he was interviewed on the Today programme earlier in the week. Discussing immigration, Nuttall couched his critique of the British establishment’s open-doors prejudices in language that specifically targeted the voters Labour has lost… This wasn’t some blunt, borderline xenophobic attack. It was empathy and nostalgia.
- "This sense—that UKIP actually cares about the fate of the white working class and their kids—provides UKIP with its magnetic pull on voters that Labour has long considered its property."
Spot-on. But, having exposed the liberal left's betrayal of 'labour', Wind-Cowie then goes on to broaden his analysis – putting a name to the ideology that might increasingly come to define UKIP:
- "The reason UKIP is a genuine threat to the political establishment, rather than merely to the Conservative party, can be found in its accidental post-liberalism. This emerging school of political thought and practice—which seeks to challenge the assumptions and excesses of both social and economic liberalism—has found something of a testing ground in UKIP."
The operative word here is "accidental", it may be that UKIP's top brass like nothing more that to discuss the finer points of post-liberalism over a pint and packet of pork scratchings, but one doubts it. Rather, the party is haphazardly feeling its way to policy positions that resonate with ordinary working people.
Thus last week, we saw Nigel Farage effectively junk UKIP's commitment to a flat tax – the sort of thing that appeals to the libertarian right, but not to those who aren't rich enough to profit from such a proposal. It was a key moment, emblematic of the fact that there is a whole swathe of middle England who find themselves cut off from the supposed benefits of economic and social liberalism.
Of course, if the Conservative Party did what it says on the tin, then it might be bes-placed to respond to the growing disenchantment with the liberal 'consensus'. Last week was certainly a wake-up call:
- "All three main parties have important lessons to learn from UKIP’s success. A failure to grasp the post-liberal nettle and to confront the profoundly unfair impact of cold-blooded meritocracy could well lead to their slow marginalisation.This doesn’t mean just imitating their policies (which often smack of illiberalism rather than post-liberalism) but it does mean adapting rhetoric and proposals to demonstrate some understanding for the people they are elected to serve."
Whether the Conservative Party chooses to respond remains to be seen. But if we don't, it won't be for lack of a clear warning.