By Theo Cox Dodgson
115 years ago the Labour Party was founded in order to fill an obvious political gap. In 1900 there were no socialist or even social democratic parties represented in parliament. The party struggled initially against the well funded Tory and Liberal machines, but in 1945 they were finally successful and they formed their first majority government. They are to date the most successful insurgent party in British politics. However, after they lost the election in 1951, they found that in order to win power again in 1964 they had to move to the right. When things got tough again in the 1990’s Tony Blair reached the same conclusion and moved the party even further to the right.
Much has been made of this split between “Old Labour” and “New Labour”. But this is not unique to Labour. One party going through a similar debate at the moment is UKIP.
Until early 2014 UKIP described itself a "libertarian, non-racist party seeking exit from the EU”. They have now substituted this for “a patriotic party that promotes independence: from the EU, and from government interference”. This change was not well covered in the mainstream media, but it is perhaps the most significant change to a British political party since Tony Blair removed Clause 4 from the Labour Party constitution. Most kippers will identify as libertarians or classical liberals when asked but won’t bring the word up in conversation unprompted, in the same the way most Labour MPs will identify as socialists when asked but will not bring up the word in conversation. Both Labour and UKIP have increasingly resorted to using vague catch-all phrases like “common sense”
This seemed inevitable in UKIP- as the party got bigger they wanted to broaden their appeal to maintain high poll ratings and this inevitably annoyed libertarians who wished for the party to remain philosophically pure. “New Ukip” has of course been incredibly successful- winning the 2014 Euro elections and coming a respectable 3rd in the 2015 general election. Apart from Labour and possibly the SDP they are the most successful insurgent party in the history of British politics. But this came at the expense of their libertarian credentials. In the run up to the 2015 election Farage hinted at several libertarian policy points - such as NHS reform, gun liberalization and flat taxes. None of these were in the manifesto and UKIP even tried to go to the left of Labour on the issue of the NHS by scrapping all PFI deals. It’s very clear where UKIP stand on libertarianism- it’s something they hint at to appease much of their older base but don’t actually put in their manifesto. UKIP, like Labour, have decided to sacrifice principles for votes.
For eurosceptics in general this may have been a good thing. For a party committed to leaving the EU to receive over 10% of the national vote significantly would have forced the hand of David Cameron to commit to a referendum. But that issue is out of the way now- the referendum is happening and UKIP now need to put all their energy in campaigning for out. But what do UKIP do after the referendum? In the case of either victory or defeat they would have to stand for something else in order to justify their continued existence.
Supporters of “New-UKIP” would claim that being radical- supporting a flat tax, reforming the NHS and gun liberalization would be popular with libertarians and not with the rest of the public. Because libertarians are a small minority- this strategy is not good for the party. This is partially true. But UKIPs success in campaigning for Brexit or for immigration reform did not come out of compromise. Upon becoming leader in 2006 Farage didn’t say “I’ll support the most popular position on this subject”. He was radical, pretty consistent, and he is now on the eve of possibly taking Britain out of the European Union, not to mention the way he has (unfortunately) changed the terms of debate on immigration.
To use another historical example- take the Socialist Party of the U.S. In 1928 it ran Norman Thomas for President on quite a radical programme- and received less than 1% of the vote. But as Milton and Rose Friedman pointed out in Free to Choose
“The Socialist party was the most influential political party in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century. Because it had no hope of electoral success on a national level (it did elect a few local officials, notably in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), it could afford to be a party of principle. The Democrats and Republicans could not. They had to be parties of expediency and compromise, in order to hold together widely disparate factions and interests. They had to avoid "extremism," keep to the middle ground. They were not exactly Tweedledum and Tweedledee—but close to it. Nonetheless, in the course of time both major parties adopted the position of the Socialist party.”
(You can find the quote here Page 286 and 287 and explanation of the socialist party's influence is on page 311 and 312)
Therefore, UKIP should be like the U.S Socialist party, not the UK Labour Party. If UKIP recognize that trying to win seats for the sake of winning seats is folly and if they recognize that no-one in UKIP will ever become Prime Minister then they can be more realistic in their aims, they can be more radical, and they can talk about areas the establishment don’t want to talk about- like gun control or the NHS.
Since only 7% of the population support NHS privatization, supporting NHS privatization would damage them politically. A 2005 poll found most people in Britain wanted gun laws to be tougher, not weaker ones, again indicating a liberal stance on gun laws might reduce their vote count.
But at the expense of a lot of their voters, and at the expense of becoming a party with a serious shot at power, UKIP could use their status as a large party to change the terms of the debate and influence the main 2 parties, as the U.S Socialist Party did in America. For a libertarian who puts principle before party, this can only be a good thing.