UKIP’s internal tensions have been obvious for some time. As the main party has gathered points in the opinion polls by picking up kneejerk reactionary positions on gay marriage and the burkha, the youth wing – Young Independence (YI) – has seen its own surge on the back of libertarian activism.
As I tweeted a month ago, after witnessing a debate on gay marriage between an old guard member and Olly Neville (a leading member of YI):
— Mark Wallace (@wallaceme) December 14, 2012
All parties – and the country at large – have that growing generational difference, particularly when it comes to the understanding of individual liberty. The test of their character is how they deal with them. And that’s where UKIP are now in big trouble.
In what some have inevitably dubbed the #Ollyshambles, Neville – who recently became the popular Chairman of Young Independence – was last night sacked from his post by the party’s leadership. His crime? He dared to disagree with them over gay marriage and on the idea that European Elections were more important than Westminster – both perfectly sensible positions for a libertarian eurosceptic to take.
So why should anyone care? After all, I hear you say, he was just the youth leader of a political party which has no Parliamentary representation. That’s true, of course, but the Neville affair does have some important ramifications for UKIP and for our wider politics.
Consider the context: UKIP are at 16% in the polls, widely touted as headed for first place in the 2014 European Elections and according to the Mail on Sunday set to deny David Cameron any chance of a General Election victory, all at a time when the EU is an increasingly important issue. Whether they convert their current polling into votes, and how they campaign matters a great deal.
The implications are numerous.
First, there’s the impact on UKIP’s effectiveness. The party’s youth wing had been signing up activist after activist from Conservative Future, based on its message of good humour and libertarian politics. That is now shattered, as the leading proponent of both is roundly duffed up. UKIP have already had resignations over the scandal, meaning they are losing energetic young activists as well as the gloss which an active youth organisation gives to a brand.
Then there’s the damage this does to UKIP’s message that it is a different kind of party, one that rejects top-down control and the enforcement of toeing the line. They have made great hay with this – look, for example, at the comments given by former CF Deputy Chair Alexandra Swann on her much-publicised defection to UKIP:
“As a member of Conservative Future, with no real power, I was monitored and forced to stick rigidly to the party line. The Tories stifle debate, and no one gets along, whereas UKIP encourage debate and they all get along fine.”
That sounded great for them at the time, but now rings extremely hollow. Small wonder Alexandra was looking rather uncomfortable on Twitter last night in the face of the news.
Given that the Conservatives allow MPs to break ranks on leaving the EU or opposing green taxes, while Labour keep Frank Field, Lord Adonis and plenty other outspoken rebels in their ranks, UKIP risk their anti-politics reputation by sacking people for simple disagreement.
Perhaps most serious for Nigel Farage is the impact this has on his own core messages about what UKIP believes. Time and again we’re told it is a libertarian party, and yet it seems that speaking your mind in favour of libertarian positions is a sackable offence.
The same goes for the question of who their leader backs or sacks. When Winston Mackenzie, the UKIP candidate in the Croydon North by-election, became the latest official representative of the party to say something horrendously bonkers by announcing that gay adoption was a form of “child abuse”, we were told that UKIP is a party that lets its people hold their own opinions.
As recently as Monday, Farage was on the Today Programme defending his troops from the Prime Minister’s allegations of oddness on the grounds that:
“…we’re eccentrics, and we tolerate eccentricity.”
So either it’s acceptable “eccentricity” to insult gay people, but unacceptable to suggest they should be allowed to marry, or this is an overnight change of position. If it’s the former, then that’s pretty horrendous. If it’s a change of position, presumably UKIP will now sack anyone who breaks from any policy at all. That would be awkward for them, given a) the tendency of their candidates and MEPs to do so and b) the fact that Nigel Farage himself has publicly gone on record as opposing their policy on drugs.
Next time (and there will be a next time) a UKIPper says something genuinely awful, how will Farage fight off the demands to sack him or her?
All in all, this is a pretty mess: young activists alienated, a libertarian and anti-politics reputation fundamentally undermined, and a total inconsistence with their own leader’s attitude to sacking and policy cohesion. Anyone acquainted with the history of UKIP will know that they are no strangers to arbitrary purges – indeed, they are probably the only political party with far more ex-members than members. It’s fair to say a return to that bloody heritage is not the road to political success.
2012 may have been UKIP’s year to party, but the Ollyshambles suggests 2013 may be the year of the hangover.
Last night, I took part in the new series of podcasts from House of Comments, along with Labour blogger Emma Burnell and Lib Dem Mark Thompson. We covered the big stories of the week, Leveson and the rise of UKIP, as well as a bit of a look forward to what might be in the Autumn Statement.
The paper claims:
25 UK Independence Party members were handing out fliers when some apparently went crazy after being asked to leave a quiet boozer.
They allegedly began threatening bar staff and police had to be called.
I’m told, though, that what really happened in Skegness was rather different than the Mirror’s account.
Rather than “handing out fliers” at the Wetherspoon’s pub The Red Lion, the group had ordered drinks and food, sat down and started chatting to staff when they asked permission to put UKIP “save the pub” beermats on the bar. The manager understandably said it wasn’t his call and agreed to call his Area Manager to check.
In the meantime the group’s food was delivered – hardly something a pub would do for customers who were “going crazy” on a “night of shame”.
When the manager returned a few minutes later, he apologised and said he’d not only been told by his superior that the beermats couldn’t be handed out, but that the group couldn’t touch their food, would be given a full refund and would have to leave immediately.
All this suggests a wrong call by an overzealous manager in a regional office, a far cry from the Mirror’s portrayal of something just short of an EDL riot.
I can’t imagine Wetherspoon’s would stand by such an overreaction against UKIP members, either, for two reasons.
First, the company has a long and honourable history of euroscepticism – see here for a recent article by their Chairman Tim Martin about the “economic folly” of the Euro and the “incredibly stupid” “load of baloney” of the current Fiscal Union proposals. Wetherspoon’s isn’t a UKIP-supporting company, but it has a sensible eurosceptic head on its shoulders (unlike, it would seem, the Skegness Area Manager).
Second, Wetherspoon’s are in touch with their drinkers. They know perfectly well the fact that your average pub-goer is no great fan of the EU, and are therefore unlikely to have some kind of UKIP ban. As evidence, just look at the ale being served at the time of the incident by the Red Lion, the pub in Skegness at the heart of this non-story:
Rather says it all, doesn’t it?
James Frayne, a predecessor of mine as Campaign Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, has been blogging for some time now at the excellent Campaign War Room. He mused over the weekend about celebrity endorsements in political campaigns and whether they actually bring any benefits. He concludes:
Sometimes celebrities can make a campaign look normal and mainstream by having celebrity establishment endorsement, and in such circumstances then why not. But I don’t think it substantially changes the way a campaign is perceived. More often than not, in Britain at least, you’re probably better off focusing on sorting out your message and developing case studies / endorsements from real people who genuinely do amplify the message you’re pushing out.
By and large I agree. As I see it there are four possible outcomes that a celebrity endorsement can bring for your campaign, which are worth pondering:
1) The “Eh? Who?”
Smaller parties and campaigns who are frustrated that the mainstream media are neglecting them can often fall into a state of clutching at straws. This means that when a so-called “celebrity” turns up on their doorstep, they will grab them and shout it to the rooftops – even if they are either unheard of or completely irrelevant to the issue at hand. Or both.
The outcome is normally that your campaign will suffer from the embarrassment of being visibly proud of the dubious endorsement of someone a bit random – causing harm rather than the supposed gilded benefits of having a celeb on board.
The classic example in this category is Rustie Lee. I know, I hadn’t heard of her either. Rustie Lee is – apparently – a TV presenter and chef, who enjoyed her heyday in the ’80s. In 2004 it was announced with great fanfare that she was joining UKIP, and she’s since stood for them in one General and one European election. She’s not a bad candidate so far as I can judge, she’s just a bit random. When UKIP sing about her as a celebrity, it just exacerbates their key problem of people assuming they are small fish in a big pond.
2) The Liability
Far worse than a little-known celebrity is one who you initially welcome on board but who then proceeds to become an embarrassing liability. The famous are particularly prone to this because by definition they tend to be unusual, driven characters and because they are normally quite naive and unpracticed when it comes to how politics actually works.
There are quite a few examples of this phenomenon, ranging from Jim Davidson speaking at the 2000 Conservative Party Conference, through David Icke acting as co-leader of the Green Party before discovering the “truth” about how giant lizards run the world and announcing he was the new Jesus, to Frank Maloney refusing to bring his UKIP campaign to Camden because there were “too many gays” there.
Even Sir Michael Caine, with long experience of learning scripts, managed to fluff his lines last year by praising the Government rather than the Opposition when he was supposed to be endorsing the Conservatives.
3) The Backlash
The other risk you take on board when you given prominence and importance to the political views of a celebrity is that they will later change sides – slamming you with the Backlash. It’s difficult to shrug such a change of heart off – after all, if the voters were meant to listen to them when they were on your side, why shouldn’t people pay attention now your pet star has decided you’re actually rotten to the core/personally rude/a massive let-down/a danger to the nation?
This is exacerbated by the, shall we say, flighty nature of a lot of celebrities. What little benefit the Lib Dems got from Colin Firth’s backing swiftly evaporated when he withdrew it over tuition fees. Labour got a flush of embarrassment when D:Ream-star-turned-celebrity-physicist Brian Cox announced that while he had hoped things could “only get better” in 1997, he would in 2010 be voting Lib Dem due to Labour’s “cock-up” on science funding. In 2009 UKIP learned the danger of getting a newspaper columnist on board when the Telegraph’s Robin Page used the paper to denounce them and announce his resignation after a personal spat with Nigel Farage.
4) The Smooth Runner
Sometimes, of course, celebrity endorsements do go well – or at least don’t go badly.
Plenty of celebrities are uncontroversial political players – Tony Robinson has played a prominent role in the Labour Party since the 1980s, Daniel Radcliffe announced his support for the Lib Dems but hasn’t apparently done much for them and William “Ken Barlow” Roache is apparently a lifelong Tory. The thing that really stands out about those celebrities who aren’t actively bad news for their chosen cause, though, is that none of them really stand out as stunning successes either.
Best of all was probably Joanna Lumley as an advocate for the Gurkhas. As well as being articulate and media-savvy, she had a genuine reason to be interested in the issue at hand and stuck with it throughout the campaign. It’s telling as to the value of celebrity support that she is notable mainly for having been pretty good at it – an almost unique example of a successful endorsement that didn’t backfire.
Of course, these four categories are slightly artificial distinctions – things get really tricky with celebs when they appear to be one of these categories and then turn out to be another (or even several of the others). Most dramatic was Robert Kilroy-Silk, who when he joined UKIP at first appeared to be a bit of an “Eh? Who?“. He swiftly shifted to the appearance of a Smooth Runner, giving UKIP a poll boost and romping home in the European Election. Unfortunately he then almost immediately became a Liability, jumped quickly into Backlash mode by slagging off the party and then left – to become a Liability for his own ill-fated outfit, Veritas. Let that be a warning to all others who are tempted by the siren call of a celebrity saying “Is there anything I can do to help?”