It’s great to have Nigel Farage back at the helm of Ukip, but the party still needs to change – and fast.
At the General Election we took almost 4 million votes, but had just one elected MP. For all we might moan about an electoral system which means that one SNP vote was ‘worth’ the same as 149 Ukip votes, we can’t deny that at least some of this problem is self-inflicted.
In some Ukip target seats, there was tactical voting against the party. We have to ask the question: why? And not all of the answer can be laid at the door of establishment smears against Ukip. Yet here in the North East Ukip performed better than in any other region in the country.
I’m grateful that Nigel Farage took time out of his busy schedule and Thanet South campaign to come to Hartlepool, but Nigel’s enthusiasm isn’t always matched by the rest of the party.
Other than the obvious need for Ukip to focus more on the North East, there are three key areas where the party must change:
1. Not everything is about immigration or the EU
Ukip was the only party to have a credible, independently-costed manifesto at this election. We were the only party which could claim that its sums add up. And being perceived (not totally fairly) as a ‘right-wing’ party, we had our manifesto costed by a left-of-centre think tank.
So why, oh why, do we turn almost every question into an immigration issue? Question about jobs...it’s immigration. Question about housing? Clearly an immigration issue. Class sizes? Immigration. The economy? Immigration. Traffic jams? Immigration. Health service? No, wait, let me guess!
Yes, I do understand that uncontrolled immigration puts a strain on public services and uncontrolled unskilled immigration drives down wages in working-class areas - but we sound like a broken record banging on about the same thing over and over again.
The maddening part is that Ukip actually has great policies on all of these issues, if only we dared to articulate them. By talking only about immigration and the demand side of Ukip’s housing policy, we forget that we have a great policy to increase supply on brownfield sites.
The Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors described it as the “first real programme of this campaign that seeks to solve Britain’s long-term supply-side crisis”.
By talking only about the impact of mass immigration on jobs, we neglect to mention everything else that we’d do to generate jobs and help workers. Cuts in small business rates, reform of zero-hours contracts, and a beautifully neat policy to stop late payments sinking small businesses. Through our focus on health tourism and HIV, we neglect to talk about proper funding for mental health services or meeting the needs identified by Alzheimer’s UK for dementia treatment. Our whole-person approach to healthcare is forgotten, and scrapping hospital car parking charges becomes barely an afterthought.
Here in the North East we were Ukip’s best-performing region in the country this year, despite it being historically a below-average region for us, in 2015 we averaged 17% of the vote compared with a national average of 12.6%. I think it’s no coincidence that our candidates talked about all the issues not just the EU and immigration.
During the General Election campaign I represented Ukip in two hour-long national televised debates: the Daily Politics education debate, and the Newsbeat economy debate. I didn’t mention the EU or immigration in either. After the Newsbeat debate, young people were queuing up to talk to me: they’d never heard a Ukip candidate talk about policies before, and were suddenly interested in finding out more. I’ve heard of teachers voting Ukip who had never done so before, after the education debate. Whilst the approach worked incredibly well, I was criticised within Ukip for taking it.
2. We need better candidate selection
There are two types of mistake which a political party can make over candidate selection. One is excusable, the other is not.
All parties have found themselves in the situation of having to suspend parliamentary candidates – this year other parties’ parliamentary candidates were accused (or convicted) of fraud, drink-driving, falsified electoral nomination papers and trying to plan a fake EDL rally.
When Ukip puts 5,000 candidates on council ballot papers in addition to over 600 Parliamentary candidates, there may be some who say or do something stupid and must be removed. This can happen to any party.
But when (as in Hampstead & Kilburn) we select a Parliamentary candidate whose abhorrent views were aired and publicised already at last year’s council elections, the resultant bad publicity is entirely our own fault. Freedom of speech is not an excuse: I might (a la Voltaire) defend the right of freedom of speech to the death, yet vehemently oppose the association of those distasteful views with Ukip. The candidate concerned finished in fifth place, losing his deposit. I can’t say I’m surprised - and I’ll be blunt: if I lived in that constituency, I couldn’t have voted Ukip either.
3. Our rhetoric needs to change
Ukip is pro-Europe but anti-European Union, and pro-controlled immigration but anti-uncontrolled mass net immigration. We’re not here to blame immigrants. We welcome them with open arms – not at the rate of a net 300,000 a year, but at a sustainable rate.
But from the time of the billboards focused on Romania and Bulgaria in our European election campaign in 2014, the message above has seemingly replaced by dog-whistle politics.
The message we portray is often toxic, but our candidates just aren’t like that at all. My brother stood as a Ukip council candidate this year. When asked in an interview whether he had ever been accused of racism, he responded: “Yes, but I can’t understand why. I’ve visited 33 countries, speak fluent Pashto and Spanish with a smattering of Chichewa and other languages. I’ve worked in Malawi as an aid worker. How could anyone possibly see me as racist?”
We can’t lay 100% of the blame at the door of the media: our own rhetoric has fanned the flames too.
Our rhetoric should be that of hope, of a vibrant modern economy trading not just with Europe but with the globe. It should be about looking out for hard-working people, giving small business the freedom it needs to thrive whilst ensuring that big business pays its fair share. It should be about 21st-century direct democracy, taking power from establishment politicians and giving it back to the people. That’s the party that reflects what Ukip members truly are, the party I’m still proud to represent.
Jonathan Arnott is Ukip MEP for the North East and finished second in the Easington constituency at last week’s general election.