UKIP and the Tories: Snog, Marry, Avoid?
It’s the day after the night before, and the real story of the 2013 local election is that UKIP are now a serious force to be reckoned with. Gaining 139 council seats, they’ve bypassed the Greens in terms of councillors in one night. It seems, for the time being, UKIP are here to stay.
This, of course, presents a conundrum for Conservative Party, with many pundits claiming the party is haemorrhaging votes to the new darling of the right. What is the best way for the Conservatives to deal with the ‘Kippers? They have three options available to them; snog, marry, avoid…
The Conservatives cannot snog UKIP: any attempt for the party to cosy up to UKIP will be seen as disingenuous and electorally shallow, especially given the reluctance of Cameron to renounce his oft-quoted declaration that UKIP are full of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, made in 2006. This, followed by Ken Clarke branding of UKIP as a “collection of clowns” has essentially poisoned relations between the two parties. I suspect that this is one area where Cameron isn’t willing to do a U-turn, which is probably for the best since the public would see right through the move.
The Conservatives cannot marry UKIP: a pact between the parties may seem initially attractive, but there is little point for either party. UKIP, who takes their majority of votes from the Conservatives (60% of UKIP voters voted Conservative in 2010 according to YouGov), would lose a significant amount of support via a pact and run the risk of once again making themselves electorally irrelevant.
On the other hand, the Conservatives may gain back some of these voters through an alliance, but in officially tying themselves to UKIP they would open themselves up to being tarred with the same brush as their new partner; for every fruitcake, loony, or closet racist ‘Kipper uncovered the Conservatives would receive negative publicity via association – see the similar criticism that the Conservatives receive since Cameron changed the Conservative’s European Parliament grouping to the European Conservatives and Reformists. Ultimately, this would undo any effort at ‘detoxifying the brand’ that Cameron has been desperate to achieve, as well as alienating more centrist voters.
The only option open to the Conservatives is to avoid UKIP. The Conservative-led government should continue redouble their efforts in key areas;
- Their publicly supported welfare reforms, which clearly resonate with many voters.
- A tougher stance on immigration, especially with regard to the Abu Qatada debacle. This area is of great importance for the Conservatives, with the 76% of UKIP voters voting for the party because they want immigration reduced – compared to just 59% who vote for UKIP because they want to leave the EU. A systemic inability for the main parties to articulate a convincing immigration policy is clearly a key reason for the rise of UKIP.
- Increase economic growth and reduce the cost of living, which should be achieved through bold measures including supply-side and tax reform. This should take the form of introducing more competition within essential services such as banking, water and energy provision, and within the rail industry (see the CPS’s ‘Capitalism for the Little Guy’see ‘Rail’s Second Chance’).
It is issues like this that matter to (ex-)Conservative voters, and to voters who are not aligned to any political party. Gay marriage, on the other hand, was the reason why just 12% of UKIP voters turned to the new party. It would be foolish for talk of a ‘metropolitan elite’ to gain serious traction within the party’s debate.
Secondly, the Conservative’s must address the reason why the public hold the political establishment in such low regard – this is another key reason why voters are abandoning all parties to vote UKIP. There is a real distance between representatives and represented, and this is not helped by Cameron’s increasing reliance on a small clique of Old Etonians at the top of the party (not Estonians, as my auto-correct is claiming – that would really piss UKIP off). In twenty-first century British politics, MPs are rewarded via promotion by being on message, increasing the sense amongst the public that their representatives do not listen. Representation has become a one way street, with MPs pushing the government message on the public, at the expense of pushing their constituent’s views on the government.
There are ways of closing this distance, but the most effective would be for the party to hold open primaries – and let the local people (perhaps not just party members) decide who should be their candidate. This would reduce the levels of alienation felt by voters who have abandoned the Conservative Party by actively engaging them with the political process, and would hopefully result in a party full of candidates who know, and can respond to, the needs of the people.
This, of course, requires a change in the culture of modern party politics; currently internal debate is tightly regulated, a simple policy disagreement is painted by the media as an internal crisis, and it is blind, silent, loyalty that is rewarded by the party hierarchy. Instead, what the Conservatives need to promote is a big-tent politics whereby different groups can have healthy debates, can disagree with certain policies, and can forward the interests of their constituents – perhaps against the party’s overall message – without being ostracised. This should result in a more dynamic, intellectually interesting and adaptable Conservative party.
The Conservatives should not flatter UKIP, and nor should they pander to them. Like any weed, they need to be removed at the root, and that involves tackling public dissatisfaction with the political process and with political parties. The Conservatives need to get back on the side of the voters they’re losing, and they need to do this by reconnecting with traditional supports. Open primaries have the potential to do this, but they must be willing to change the way party politics has operated.