There are huge ideological divisions in Nigel Farage's party. Photo: Getty
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Is Ukip the most divided party in British politics?

A fundamental economic tension runs through Ukip.

As small parties grow, so the possibility for tumult within them multiplies. Of all the internal divisions in British political parties today, the chasm that exists in Ukip over economic policy might just be the largest.

The surge in Ukip’s popularity since has come at a cost. The days when there was nothing to argue about – because there was no one to argue with, and, in any case, it really, really didn’t matter – have ceased. Ukip is in the midst of a fundamental ideological clash.

Traditionally, Ukip has positioned itself as a libertarian party. It has adopted an economic policy of turbo-charged Thatcherism, advocating a flat tax in its 2010 general election manifesto.

No longer. As Ukip has pitched for old Labour supporters, so it was shifted its position to the economic left. By-elections in the north this year have seen the emergence of "Red Ukip". The party has positioned itself as the best defenders of the NHS and welfare state, and even attacked the wealth of leading figures in the Labour Party. Patrick O’Flynn was appointed as Ukip economics spokesman earlier this year. At Ukip conference in September he proposed a "wag tax" – an extra rate of VAT on expensive shoes, handbags and cars.

It did not sit well with Ukip’s traditional supporters. Within 48 hours Nigel Farage formally abandoned the policy.

Now there are murmurs of plotting against O’Flynn. A Breitbart London report this week quoted a Ukip source warning: “It's a real mistake to have a pinko in such an important position.” The fundamental tension is between the libertarian, ultra low tax wing who formed the core of Ukip’s support until 2010, and those who think a more statist approach is needed if the party is to grow.

While Ukip have taken three Conservative voters for every one Labour supporter, their recent converts are very different in character. Since January last year, Ukip have gained six former Labour voters for every nine Tory ones. When Nigel Farage boasts of putting Ukip’s tanks on Labour’s lawns it reeks of bluster. But, as Farage told Jason Cowley last week, Ukip is nearing the limit of its appeal with former Conservatives. 

For reasons of psephology, it is imperative for Ukip to continue to pursue old Labour supporters. But in doing so it is walking a political tightrope, attempting to please both disillusioned Old Labourites and zealous tax-cutters. Hence Ukip’s political zigzagging on the economy. O’Flynn’s conference speech contained not only the wag tax but also the promise that Ukip would scrap inheritance tax, to the delight of the party’s right. It amounted to populism on two fronts.

Some media reports have seen Ukip’s economic divide as pitting O’Flynn, on the left, against the party’s libertarians. Actually the divide is far greater. A few minutes after he stopped speaking, I attended a Ukip fringe meeting on how to win the Labour vote. One of the speakers was Ian Dexter, a former Ukip candidate in county and district elections. He lambasted the party’s stance on inheritance tax – and advocated more progressive taxation, re-evaluating council tax bands for properties, renationalising the railways and rent controls: a comprehensive manifesto for Red Ukip.

While that party has yet to be invented, there has been a significant shift in Ukip policy since 2010. As Steven Woolfe, the party’s financial affairs spokesman tells me, “Patrick is certainly alongside myself in that we recognise that there is a huge number of people who have not benefited from the growth. If that makes us left-wing then so be it.” He says they are united in “trying to find fairness in our tax system, or trying to raise an imbalance between those who are earning a lot more to help those who don't.” But Woolfe thinks such an approach is compatible with Ukip’s “natural libertarian view” on the state. “The great divide is that people are saying just because we’re not going to a flat rate of tax that suddenly we no longer care about making the state smaller or more efficient. I think they’re wrong in that.”

All parties are political coalitions, but Ukip’s is an especially precarious one. While Ukip reckon that Labour’s northern heartlands are fertile ground, its party finances depend on the continued support of donors of a distinctly libertarian bent. This tension means that Ukip policy row stories will become staples of political journalism. But those hoping that they will lead to a fatal split in Ukip may be disappointed. The Liberal Democrats unite men with economic views as divergent as David Laws and Tim Farron. Small parties need not be encumbered by ideological incoherence. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.