Ukip is often accused of wanting to take us all back into the past, and in one respect it certainly did so this week, with its alpha males tearing lumps out of each other in the most astonishingly public fashion. This was truly a Life On Mars moment, reminding one of the Labour Party and TUC conferences of the 1970s and 1980s before these became the ghastly, sanitised affairs of the metrosexual New Labour years.
However, all this sound and fury has obscured two very important facts: because the issue of “Europe” will be decided well before the next general election, the long-term future of Ukip will revolve around domestic politics, and will largely be determined by the choices of rivals. All political parties are currently grappling with the onset of the second machine age, where thanks to technological trends, it should be possible to provide and customise services around our own personal choices to a greater extent than ever before. Unfortunately, those same technological trends vastly favour the highly skilled and intelligent, with a significant – and perhaps ever-growing number of people – joining the ‘Left Behinds’ of society.
The rise of Ukip, with its seemingly weird mixture of “Essex Man” Thatcherites and Northern socialist voters, is a symptom of this gradual political and social realignment. It may well be that increasing freedom of choice via technology in many aspects of our lives (Douglas Carswell’s ‘iDemocracy’) will have to be coupled with a ‘Red Ukip’ agenda with a greater degree of financial distribution to help the many whose prospects are poor.
As both Matthew Goodwin in the Telegraph and Kathy Gyngell on these pages have noted, the differences between ‘Blue’ and ‘Red’ Ukip are perfectly surmountable, but they still need to be skilfully melded into a coherent platform. Ukip’s newly restored ‘Sun King’ style of leadership is not best placed to do that and surely it would be better for a more collegiate style to emerge and significantly broaden the party’s appeal. Nigel Farage is certainly the best man still to lead Ukip given his ability to carry the rank and file with him, but perhaps it would be better for him to assume a more Clement Attlee-style role – the captain managing the egos and passions of a capable team. It is fair to say that given Farage’s personality, such an outcome is regrettably unlikely.
Ukip clearly has some dreadful cultural weaknesses, but then so have it rivals. After all, other parties can see the trends in how society is going, but nonetheless find it difficult to act accordingly. It is well over 5 years ago that Maurice Glasman invented the idea of ‘Blue Labour’ – emphasising a socially conservative agenda centred around “Faith, Family and Flag”. Unsurprisingly, that proved absolute anathema to its metropolitan leadership and was thus ignored – with disastrous results, especially in Scotland. Although now wise to the Ukip threat, the values of Labour’s activist and funding base continue to be so estranged from its core voters that the party may find it emotionally impossible to follow an agenda that will guarantee their now fraying loyalty.
Likewise, the Tories have unwisely chased metropolitan approval and alienated much of their core vote. Their victory was won simply out of fear of the SNP’s uber-socialism rather than enthusiasm for what they had to offer. Now that the election is over, it is likely that Cameron will fall back into the lazy, reactive style of governance he finds congenial. Next time around, with voters tiring of Tory governance, full financial devolution for Scotland achieved and a more credible Labour leader, the Tories are very unlikely to be able to rely so heavily on the fear factor bringing them home.
In summary, despite its evident capacity for self-destruction, it is still more likely than not that Ukip will survive and prosper in the next few years, but it is sure to be a very bumpy ride indeed. What is more essential, however, is that at least one party offers a vision to rebuild a socially cohesive society, firstly to counteract the profound sense of social unease that modern forces have introduced into the lives of so many, and secondly to give ordinary people the best possible platform to build on in what may be very challenging circumstances.