Every time you hear the words “seriously considering” from UKIP, you know the party has found itself in a bit of a tricky position. On one hand, something’s happened that’s generating news coverage, and they’d like to keep that coverage going. On the other, it’s something on which they probably can’t follow through.
A case in point was the recent kerfuffle over Nigel Farage’s possible candidacy for the disgraced MP Patrick Mercer’s newly vacated seat. Mercer had been forced to step down following allegations of asking questions in the Commons in return for cash, the kind of “aren’t politicians dreadful” scenario on which UKIP has thrived in recent years. Coupled with UKIP’s strong showing in the polls in the run-up to the European elections in late May (despite all kinds of mud being slung) and you have the journalistic equivalent of 2 + 2 = 5.
As quickly as the story blew up, it blew down. UKIP and Farage moved very quickly to quash the rumours (which they had been partially responsible for starting) that this might come to pass. Farage, with his usual disarming frankness, declared that standing for the seat and not winning it would “burst the bubble” of UKIP’s progress – also noting that he didn’t have local links to the area, and that UKIP would have a very hard time winning indeed.
A man with a plan
Each of these arguments needs closer scrutiny. Newark would indeed be a poor choice of seat for UKIP to contest; it has a healthy Tory majority, lacks the working class voters that make up much of UKIP’s base, and most of all has a minimal local UKIP organisation. This last point has become increasingly important as the party has tried to expand beyond its Eurosceptic niche and pull in voters from across the board.
The lack of local links is more of a red herring. It certainly didn’t stop Farage contesting the Buckingham constituency in 2010, with a performance more memorable for his strategy of visiting every pub there and for his polling day plane crash than for its electoral outcome (third behind commons speaker John Bercow and a local independent candidate). As next year’s general election will likely show, Farage will contest where he has the best chance of election, not where he lives.
Which brings us to the real heart of the matter, the UKIP “bubble”. The party is currently living its dream: it is a plucky underdog fighting for what it believes is right, against the odds. If that sounds reductive, it is worth keeping in mind that this is very much a media-produced narrative, quite apart from whatever the party says about itself.
The trajectory the narrative predicts is clear: UKIP does well in May’s European and (importantly) local elections, confirming its ability to translate opinion polls into votes and seats. Thereafter, the party gathers itself for May 2015 and the general election, where it focuses on some key target seats, hoping to break through like the Greens did in Brighton in 2010.
2015 is therefore critical for the party. Farage has already said he’ll step down if the party doesn’t win seats, and anyone can see why. The actual benefit of gaining MEPs would be minimal; local representation would be useful, but essentially a long-term strategy (in the style of the Liberal Democrats). Westminster seats must be the goal if the narrative is to be kept from stalling.
And stalling matters. During its history, UKIP has seen big increases in membership when it’s riding high (as in 2004 and now), but those numbers look to be rather soft, with commensurate drops at other times. The growth in membership numbers has far outpaced the party’s recruitment of experienced and/or competent administrators and organisers: witness the continuing examples of poor vetting of candidates in recent weeks, despite a big clear-up announced last year.
Ultimately, Farage’s Newark demurral tells us a lot about UKIP. It highlights the opportunistic way the party has exploited the news cycle to its advantage, even if its capacity to act is limited, and the importance that it attaches to all media coverage. It also reminds us of Farage’s crucial role in the party: without him, it would be in a very different position today.
And finally, it tells us about the ongoing failure of the media (and many political figures) to understand the impact of a party that has tapped a deep reservoir of discontent with public life – and which will present considerable challenges to the entire political establishment for some time yet.