From the beginning, Ukip’s conference had a very different feel from those of the three main parties. Journalists are accustomed to free alcohol at party conferences but, to their chagrin, they had to pay for their drinks at the Ukip media reception. This was not their only source of frustration. Many journalists did not stay for the final day – and as a result, they missed Conservative MP Mark Reckless being unveiled by Nigel Farage, to much applause, as the party’s latest recruit.
Not that the mood of the conference needed much boosting. In the European elections in May, Ukip became the first party since the Liberals in 1910 to break the stranglehold of the Conservatives and Labour and win a nationwide election.
Memories of that victory remain vivid but Ukip does not dwell on success for long. The party is focused on how to get Douglas Carswell, another Tory defector, into parliament next year. They hope that up to ten more Ukip MPs will join him.
Despite the defections from the Conservatives, Ukip seemed most concerned with attacking Labour. “We are parking our tanks on the Labour Party’s lawn,” Farage thundered in his leader’s speech. Natasha Bolter, a former Labour member from Tower Hamlets, attacked the “female tokenism” in her old party. Meanwhile, the MEP Louise Bours branded the privatisation and bureaucratisation of the NHS under Labour “a disgrace”.
Even the choice of conference location was important: it took place a couple of miles away from Ed Miliband’s Doncaster North constituency. Farage confirmed that this was no coincidence. While Labour finished its conference in a grandiose conference centre in Manchester, Ukip chose a rather less refined venue: Doncaster Racecourse. Unlike at the other party conferences, Farage and leading Ukip figures were accessible to all conference-goers. They mingled freely with them in the main conference bars.
In honour of David Cameron branding party supporters “fruitcakes”, a stall gave out slices of the cake along with the message: “Replace the stale Westminster fruitcakes”. Eurosceptics could demonstrate their dislike of the new European Council president by purchasing a “Damp Rag Herman Van Rompuy” tea towel and there were T-shirts on sale attacking Cameron’s plans to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes.
At the same time, a former county and district candidate advocated renationalising the railways, introducing rent controls, abolishing family trust funds and more taxation on the wealthiest. It was evidence of the ideological diversity in the party and of a commitment to public internal debate that the main parties are often accused of lacking. All of this could cause difficulty in the future but Ukip has the luxury that it will not be burdened by power, leaving it free to prioritise populism, whether of a leftist or rightist bent, over ideological coherence.
Most striking was the professionalism of Ukip’s conference. There were no real cock-ups. That said, if Ukip were as shambolic as its stereotype, it would not have been able to unveil two defectors in a month without any leaks.