UKIP defections are a sign of wishful thinking
Have you ever taken the Vote for Policies survey? It was designed before the 2010 election to allow people to assess party manifesto commitments without the tribal labels attached. It’s still useful today.
To my mild surprise, my results read: Conservative 1, Liberal Democrat 1, Labour 2, UKIP 5. So like many people in the Tory party, I can understand the appeal of some of UKIP’s policy positions. Ideologically undiluted conservatism and lashings of libertarianism all mixed up with a heady mix of trenchant Euroscepticism.
Although the latter does not appeal to me personally, this week has seen several high-profile defections from the Conservatives to UKIP. Yet despite understanding the appeal, this week I branded such defections ‘self-indulgent’, and I stand by that.
You see, ideologically pure parties don’t really function well in British politics. To thrive our parties need to be broad churches that appeal to a broad coalition of voters and activists. Stray from this formula, and your appeal is too narrow provide a realistic stepping stone to government.
Nigel Farage understands this, which is why he – unlike the great majority of Conservative-minded voters or even Britons in general– supported AV and proposals to shift to a more proportional franchise, and a system where UKIP could win a decent number of parliamentary seats and act as a right-wing influence in a parliamentary coalition.
But the AV referendum was defeated and British electoral reform has been put to bed for the foreseeable future, which makes the timings of the current defectors bizarre. What are they supposed to achieve?
You see, there are two UKIPs. One is a single-issue anti-EU pressure party, and a very successful one. It beat the then party of government into third place in the 2008 European elections. These elections, being both proportional and Europe-focused, provide a fairly unique political environment in which UKIP can thrive.
The second is a catch-all home for ex-Conservatives rebelling not only over Europe but over whole swathes of domestic policy. Although not a defector, Andrew Lilico over on ConHome sums up the mood:
“Since I’m actually a Conservative and not a Democrat, I’m bemused by the idea that we should be devising policy with a view to getting re-elected. I say again: surely the right thing to do is to do what we believe to be right as Conservatives and then submit our actions to the judgement of the voters, confident that if we have indeed been Conservatives that should usually be enough.”
In short, enough compromise with the electorate and enough of this coalition nonsense. We’ll do what we believe to be right, in the belief that “even if Britons did not always initially see the merits of our ideas, over time they would feel (even if they did not understand or articulate) that we were right.”
This sort of thinking lies behind those defecting to UKIP as well as frustrated loyalists like Dr Lilico. It is political comfort food of the sort we on the right have long mocked Labour for indulging in. For those with long political memories, it was such behaviour that cost Labour almost two decades in opposition.
Fact is, all political parties have to evolve to survive. Ideologically pure Conservatism has never won an election in this country, no more than ‘pure’ socialism or any other ‘ism’. Elections are won by appealing to a broad range of people on a mix of issues, combined with lots of other factors.
Like all other political forces, Conservatism mutates over time. Today’s conservatism is not the last generation’s conservatism, and our children’s conservatism will not be our own.
An effective Conservative Party is of course not simply be in the business of doing whatever the polls suggest is popular. But nor can we simply do whatever we please in the certainty that the British people will eventually return us either now or in future. That sort of ideological rigidity will prevent the British centre-right building a viable coalition of electors and perhaps condemn us to another generation locked out of government.
That’s why the UKIP defections are so baffling. What is the intended outcome? Is the idea that UKIP will break through in non-European elections and bring undiluted Conservatism to Westminster? Most political activists with any experience (and I concede that UKIP activists are skewing younger of late) must realise that unless or even if this country gets PR any chance of UKIP gaining power will involve the sort of compromises – both with other parties and the electorate – that the current big parties are used to making.
The alternative is that UKIP will simply start taking so much of the Tory vote that they’ll force the larger party to start adapting to them. If this strategy actually worked, it could be a strategic disaster for the British right of near Lloyd George/Asquith proportions. The split vote would cost the Conservatives dozens of seats to the left while dragging the party away from the centre and any hope of actually forming a government.
So Dr Lilico is only half-right. It is not the place of an ideologically-motivated party in a democracy to hold power at all costs. But nor is it the role of a serious party of government to eschew the realities of winning elections in exchange for ideological purity. It’s about balance.
The Conservative Party has in the past “reflected the deep instincts of the British people and the natural plough-furrows of British life and the British way of doing things”, as Dr Lilico writes. But they achieved this because the party is so good at adapting to the changing mores of British popular opinion whilst simultaneously filtering them through a Conservative political outlook.
The party did not become the most successful political party in history because its activists ever had a near-religious faith in their own insight or because of an unyielding commitment to a particular group of policies. If they had, “Conservative” would be no more than one of those psephological diversions with a couple of hundred votes at the bottom of the ballot paper.
Compromise and adaptation are the means by which all political movements remain relevant. If the right stops adapting then it will lose, and it will continue to lose until it faces up to the uncomfortable reality of change and the challenges it poses.
To finish by focusing on one group that has had a fair amount of attention this week, why are young libertarians defecting to UKIP? Yes, the current government is not giving libertarians all that much to smile about, but that is in no small part because the Conservatives are locked into the sort of coalition that would become the norm under the very PR proposals UKIP supports.
UKIP might offer a purer libertarian prospect, but does anybody actually think libertarianism is going to start winning general elections anytime soon? Despite present setbacks, libertarians, eurosceptics and the other right-wing elements of the Conservative coalition are much better off exerting influence inside a broad church than splitting the vote and frightening floating voters.
The question is how much damage UKIP will do before it figures that out.