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19 November 2014

Is Ukip the most divided party in British politics?

A fundamental economic tension runs through Ukip.

By Tim Wigmore

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.

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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.

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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.