“Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “UKIP.” “UKIP who?” It sounds like a joke but it’s a deadly serious question. UKIP who, indeed. This is the question which faces us in the UKIP Leadership election. What should our message be to the person standing behind that door when we knock on it?
I know what I want: I want a UKIP that talks to the person behind the door. If they’re facing unemployment, we should be talking about how we boost the economy and create jobs. If they’re a victim of crime, we should be talking to them about how we’d cut crime. If they’re a small business owner, we should be talking about how we’d help our small businesses. If they’re a woman caught in the so-called WASPI trap, we should be proposing ways to mitigate the hit that they’re taking.
If they’re a parent with a young child desperately concerned about education, we should be talking to them about how we’d improve our schools (mentioning Grammar Schools really won’t cut it if you’re talking to a parent with a 5-year-old). If they’re struggling to get by in a working-class area where unskilled immigration is cutting wages and costing jobs, we should talk about skills-based migration. If they’ve got a chronic health condition, should we not be talking about how we improve our NHS? If they’re an animal lover, concerned about animal welfare and the future of our green spaces we should be talking about (and no, talking about halal meat doesn’t cut the mustard because you’re imposing your view on them, not actually listening to their concerns) how we’ll do something practical to make a difference. If they’re a Christian, concerned about helping those around the world who are in need, we should not just talk about the ways foreign aid is abused and sent to the wrong places – but also about policies to make a difference, such as our hospital ship proposal. And if they’re a young person desperate to get on the housing ladder, how about – and this really shouldn’t be controversial – we start talking about our housing policy?
Our policies should be the people’s priorities, whilst remaining true to the low-tax, low-regulation, globally-trading vibrant dynamic principles that we hold so dear. After all, we truly believe that these principles will make people’s lives better: that’s why we’re doing this in the first place. That’s why I wrote my booklet; Britain Beyond Brexit, to show how we can be that Party that’s relevant to people yet true to our values.
It seems to me that the big dividing line in this leadership contest is this:
Some candidates understand that we need to listen to voters on the doorstep, responding to their concerns (the issues I’ve mentioned above according to any reputable poll will cover the ‘main issues’ for over 80% of the population) rather than imposing our own.
Other candidates try to sell the idea that we should focus on ‘their’ issue, and ‘their’ issue is almost always a niche issue. Even if they find that people agree with them on it, they won’t change their voting habits based upon it. That’s where the Party went so badly wrong in the General Election: in focusing on the ‘integration agenda’, we would constantly hear polls cited suggesting that people agreed with one aspect or another of it. But so what? Even if that were so, those same people would think (at best) that we were spectacularly missing the point and not talking about the things that actually matter to them.
Back in late 2009 I was involved in the Party’s opinion polling. It’s the only time I’ve ever been asked by the Party to do anything on polling (I’m a Master of Mathematics and went to university at 15, so it’s very much at the heart of my skill set) – I interpret data for what it says, not based on what the Party wants it to say. To me, polling should be about learning how people think, not about patting ourselves on the back and merely reinforcing what we want to do anyway. I devised a two-tier question system designed to tease out not just how people felt, but also how important it was to them. Would it change their vote? We found some strikingly powerful results: the ‘no tax on minimum wage’ policy was hugely popular, and a votewinner, for example.
Sadly, the party decided to completely ignore that research and we ended up talking about ‘ban the burkha’ and other such trivialities. Agree or disagree they weren’t votewinners . Despite a huge 2009 European election result, we dropped to obscurity in 2010. Later, when the Party recognised the power of a broader message (including no tax on minimum wage), and dropped the ‘ban the burkha’ policy, we surged. We brought it back in 2017 and sank like a stone. The problem wasn’t specifically that one policy, I hasten to add: it was symptomatic of a wider malaise. We’d forgotten in 2010 and 2017 that our job is to talk to real people about real issues; when we did that in 2011 to the start of 2015 we surged (but sadly reverted to type during the actual campaign in 2015 with a ‘core vote strategy’).
In this leadership election, David Allen focuses on a niche idea for electoral reform which has some positives and some negatives. Adrian Powlesland focuses on interstellar mining. Anne-Marie Waters and (to a lesser extent) Peter Whittle focus on Islam. David Kurten focuses on traditional beliefs with regard to sexuality and the teaching of it in schools. It’s arguable that John Rees-Evans’ focus on Direct Democracy falls into a similar trap, though at least that one issue impacts upon various others. Including him in this paragraph, without this qualification, would be unfair.
Supporters of each of those candidates will claim they also talk about other things, but they want to be leaders of a supposedly major political party: by giving undue weight to those specific issues, ignoring the breadth of concerns raised on the doorstep, they are asking to be caricatured by the media. A potential leader should at least be capable of basic political savviness. Worse still, if they’re elected resignations will follow from those who agree with UKIP principles yet disagree on that niche issue. We can’t afford that right now.
I therefore instantly ruled out supporting Allen, Powlesland, Waters, Whittle and Kurten – and placed a question-mark against John Rees-Evans. I’m afraid I don’t hold out much hope for the Party thriving under any of them.
I was then left with Jane Collins, David Coburn, Ben Walker, Marion Mason, Henry Bolton, and (at a pinch) John Rees-Evans. I seriously hope that readers of this article will choose a candidate from this list, rather than the other one.
On a personal level (and everyone will have their own criteria) I believe that ‘baggage’ matters. I saw what the media did (unfairly, in my view) to Paul Nuttall over Hillsborough. He had family and close friends there and knew someone who died there; his Press Officer accidentally conflated the two in a statement which was nearly 6 years old by the time the media found it. A simple error led to a media hounding on a massive scale which sadly overshadowed his leadership. I don’t want that to happen to our next Leader.
There remained, personally, three candidates to choose from: Ben Walker, Marion Mason and Henry Bolton. If anyone else wins, then (for one reason or another) I believe the Party is in big – possibly terminal – trouble. I’ve made my decision between them, but that’s a matter for another article – if you’re interested in finding out who I decided to back, it’s clear from my social media feed.