As many have delighted in doing recently, some have branded Douglas Carswell’s departure from UKIP as a sign of the party’s terminal demise. This is on paper a loss of an MP, and a return to the darker days of having zero MPs. However, it is not the loss of a genuine voice for UKIP. The losses of MEPs Steven Woolfe and Diane James, two solid representatives, late last year were genuine blows that said much about the state of the party. In contrast, Carswell’s farewell says far more about him. In truth, UKIP has not had a genuine MP since Mark Reckless was sadly relieved of his duties by the people of Rochester and Strood in 2015.
Carswell insisted in an interview yesterday that he ‘bears no animus’ and wishes the party well. In the same interview, he retorted to those understandably suggesting that he was ‘never UKIP’ by boasting that he ‘had a habit of winning elections’ and ‘a habit of being upbeat and optimistic’. His polite, happy exterior should not mask the contempt that he consistently showed to party members, who are, as it happens, generally a very cheerful bunch of people. Soon after last year’s referendum, he tweeted ‘My timeline is a cheery place this evening! Remainers attacking me because they are cross. Kippers attacking just because.’ Classy. It should not have surprised Carswell that this manner would be reciprocated. He spoke at neither of the youth wing’s annual conferences during his time in the party, and was afforded five minutes to speak at the party’s 2016 conference in Bournemouth. Apparent leader Diane James had to beg a half-empty conference hall to respect him as he walked on. Not everyone did.
Carswell and then leader Nigel Farage two began on charming terms, sharing a McFlurry in Carswell’s Clacton constituency, but relations deteriorated soon after. In December 2015, he suggested a ‘change of management’ was necessary to take UKIP ‘to the next level’, calling explicitly for ‘a fresh face’. However, Douglas joined in autumn 2014, when Farage was leader, and his reputation was well-established. In character and policy, the Nigel Farage of summer 2014 was indistinguishable from the Nigel Farage of winter 2015. Carswell embraced the not-quite-leadership of Diane James and the actual leadership of Paul Nuttall, despite their being no less ‘angry nativist’, as Douglas might complain, than Farage, and certainly no more impressive on a TV screen.
This was perhaps predictable. When he left the Conservatives, he slammed David Cameron, complaining that ‘many of those at the top of the Conservative party are simple not on our side.’ He had by this point been an MP four nine years, four of them in government, the Conservative core of which went largely unchanged between 2010 and 2014. Why the sudden epiphany? The David Cameron under whose leadership he stood for reelection as a Conservative candidate in 2010 had a style of leadership that was well-known and did not radically change prior to the defection. While the same could plausibly be said of Mark Reckless, he has comported himself with humility and integrity for as long as he has been in UKIP.
No, far from being a radical voice, Carswell had long established himself as the Bernie Sanders of the party. He joined as electoral success in the upcoming general election looked an increasingly likely and bright prospect for the party and tried to piggyback on its brand. Forever afterwards, he has undermined the leadership and the direction of the party, sowing division and whining, before crashing out as an independent having had his fill of the party’s uses. Carswell’s self-interest and love of splendid isolation should not be mistaken for principle or backbone.
Complaints that Carswell was not very UKIP, whatever that means, are no reason in themselves to celebrate his departure. He had a keener enthusiasm for neoliberalism and was a much more conventional libertarian than most members. That is tolerable. A party of the size that UKIP should aspire to would inevitably accommodate a reasonably broad but well-defined spectrum of views. A voice within the party to dissuade it from approaching protectionism and nationalism is as necessary as a voice to keep it rooted in the interests of the forgotten, the poor, and those left behind by globalisation – the kind who helped to swing the referendum.
UKIP must choose its direction very carefully. Carswell may be gone, but the party continues to suffer from division. What policies it stands for, what wider agenda those policies serve, how they are conveyed, and how it practices that which it preaches within the party are still unanswered questions. The recent Stoke Central by-election served as a vital lesson for this. Paul Nuttall promised party members that UKIP’s time will come and by-elections would be won in the future. The failings of the by-election campaign must be unpacked and comprehensively addressed if electoral success is indeed to come.
First, the party must realise that the political landscape has changed season since the referendum, and UKIP must change with it. The 24-year-old habit of shouting about leaving the European Union only worked for as long as it uniquely defined the party. Billboards claiming that only UKIP can be trusted to deliver Brexit were misguided when the government is obviously committed to it and the Labour candidate, now MP, Gareth Snell promised Brexit – in line with Labour’s official position.
Nuttall has the potential to be an excellent leader but would do well to reconsider a misplaced certainty that Theresa May will backslide on Brexit and basing a rebranded UKIP as the ‘guard dogs of Brexit’. What, precisely, can the party do if May announces that, say, we will remain subject to freedom of movement, or Parliament will need to accept a non-zero proportion of EU legislation? Deliver a few passionate speeches in the European Parliament? Release some angry press statements? This is not to mock the party, but to give a realistic analysis of the party’s ability to referee a very complicated process conducted by the UK government and the European Council, in which negotiations do not carry the simplicity of fringe politics.
Internally, Nuttall is, to his credit, showing will to implement a direct democracy agenda. Direct democracy would be no substitute for a Parliamentary process in the UK, but it would be interesting to observe in a political party as the party refreshes its policy platform. It would be a great shame to see the party decline into irrelevance, but if it does, it will not be due to losing Carswell. He should be wished well – at least until UKIP seeks to reclaim Clacton at the next general election. In the meantime, few tears will be shed within UKIP for the loss of a barely MP who has always been an independent in spirit, and the opportunity to revitalise a lagging party must be embraced.
The ink was not dry on Douglas Carswell’s resignation from UKIP, his statement barely published, before the membership was celebrating. A Facebook event was created, for a drinks party, open to “all Kippers who want to come and celebrate Carswells (sic) demise”. There was no suggestion that any of its attendees might realise how very pyrrhic their victory was.
Quite why the departure of UKIP’s sole MP is an event for its membership to celebrate remains, to me, a mystery; traditionally, a party celebrates upon the arrival of a defector, not the exit. The anguish amongst Conservatives upon Carswell’s original defection was potent, at a time when he was but a 300th of the parliamentary party he was abandoning – but UKIP now rejoice to see him deprive them of a parliamentary party entirely. This puzzling contradiction, however, is at the heart of the issue: UKIP is no longer a proper political party.
As someone who has studied political parties in some detail, I can call upon the fact that virtually any definition of what constitutes a “political party” describes the pursuit of office as a fundamental behaviour. That UKIP now celebrate the loss of their sole elected representative in Westminster is thus alone sufficient to conclude they can no longer be considered a political party.
This quixotic joy felt by Kippers upon hearing of Carswell’s resignation reflects the Party’s Labour-esque transition, from office-seeking electoral entity to identity-obsessed crusade. Their complaints about Carswell’s more disruptive behaviours may be valid, but it is impossible to ignore the well of resentment toward his daring to be a moderate. This poisonous hostility toward a moderate represents a decline down the same path that lies both behind and ahead of Labour – and it is telling that the moderate they hound is the only one to have won a seat for UKIP in a general election. In the case of both UKIP and Labour, the voting membership has become exclusively concerned with the ideological purity of its own brand, and utterly disinterested in appealing to the electorate. Moderacy is no longer a vital prerequisite for securing election to public office, but instead an apostate betrayal of doctrine. Be under no delusions: to latter-day Kippers, Carswell’s crime is blasphemy.
Whether in Nuttall’s UKIP or Corbyn’s Labour, the same patterns and processes can be easily observed. Just as Labour’s raison d’etre has been stripped from them by decades of class dealignment, so has UKIP’s by last June’s referendum result. Ostensibly, both parties have achieved what they set out to do – Labour by creating first a welfare state, and then formidable public belief in its maintenance; UKIP by securing the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU and the single market. Thusly deprived of purpose, the remnants of each party have therefore become rebels without a cause.
Deprive a rebel of their cause, however, and you learn a lot about them. Were they motivated by the achievement of their ends, or did they just enjoy the voguish zeal of their means? Are they interested in rebuilding, or did they only drop by for the demolition? Those motivated to secure Britain’s withdrawal from the EU in the case of UKIP, and those who dreamed of a welfare-woven safety net in that of Labour, have drifted away, either out of politics or back to other parties. What remains are the mischief-makers, who just enjoyed the seditious and unruly feel of it all. But suddenly, there’s nothing for them to rebel against – they got their way – and the answer they invariably come up with is to invent a betrayal. What does every betrayal need? Traitors, of course!
And so the cycle is one of a continually narrowing window of acceptable opinion, as the expulsion (constructive or otherwise) of each villain simply requires that another one be imagined. The infighting this leads to is, naturally, reflected in the polls – but, instead of examining their own recalcitrantly intolerant behaviour, the diehards blame all the party’s woes on the school of thought most moderate after the last one they purged, like a cosmic reimagining of The Weakest Link. There is no consideration of being a broad church for enduring Kippers, no attempt to establish a winning electoral coalition – just recrimination after recrimination, until the “I” in the infamous UKIP acronym might be seen to stand for “Independence” infinitely less than “Inquisition”.
Why all this matters is that most voters seek compromise. Healthily unconcerned (and usually fatigued) by neurotic obsessions over ideological small-print, the median voter, whose successful targeting was crucial to Blair’s electoral hegemony, wants solutions not sermons. They are far more concerned with the quality of local schools, transport and health provision than the idea that a few migrants might receive treatment for HIV. The role of political parties, to the typical voter, is to serve the public good through structuring choice in the democratic process: political parties excuse voters from having to extensively research the policy prescriptions of independent candidates, allowing them instead to simply cast their vote in favour of a candidate representing a party that chimes with their convictions. The purpose of a political party is not to exist as an ideological hivemind, exploiting those same democratic processes for survival. Voters know or sense this, and will reward – and punish – accordingly.
Of course, the reality is again one of a compromise between the two. Parties will always be ideological, and will always be so to the maximum extent that electoral reality allows. But when a party loses sight of this constraint, it ceases to serve a purpose as anything more than a wayward pressure group. UKIP are fast becoming the Momentum of the right – but any supporter who dares point this out will be the next to find themselves adorned by a crosshair.