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Another triumphant Ukip Conference – but can we have more conferring next time?

According to a whole range of media pundits when I arrived at Ukip’s South East England Regional Conference in Eastbourne a few days ago the hall should have been almost empty with just a few members wandering around all sad and miserable – dumbstruck by the massive Tory victory in the Newark by election last week… you know, the election where the Tories doubled their 16,000 majority and Ukip got even fewer than the 1,900 they won in 2010…

Well at least that was the view from Planet Torygraph. As far as Planet T was concerned the wheels had come off the UKIP juggernaut, the earthquake was now a squeak and purple was so… yesterday. Clearly the People’s Army was, like Bonaparte’s in 1812, fleeing the battlefield in chaos and confusion.

Yet when I stepped into the hall I found it packed out with nearly a thousand members and the whole place buzzing with excitement. Far from an air of despondency everyone was eager to prepare for next year’s General Election and listened intently as Nigel Farage outlined the leadership’s plan to target those  key constituencies where UKIP had done exceptionally well in the local and EU elections. They were also pleased to hear that between now and September the party would be putting the finishing touches to its 2015 election manifesto and that the responsibilities of presentation would be shared out between members of a larger “cabinet” with Farage himself more “primus inter pares” than the dominant voice he has been up to now.

We heard from new SE MEPs Diane James, Janice Atkinson and Ray Finch, people whose faces will become much more familiar as one part of this collegiate leadership cadre. Local councillors and party officials spoke about political issues, campaigning and branch organisation.

This was not a congress of the defeated – and why should it be? Those figures in the opening paragraph were figments of my imagination – just as the media’s interpretation of Newark was an expression of their wishful thinking. In this “safe” Tory constituency the Conservative majority was less than half the 2010 figure. UKIP’s share went up from 3% to 25%. They replaced Labour as the main opposition party and the Lib Dems evaporated. True we didn’t win the seat but away from the Cameron cheerleaders at the Telegraph and Spectator there was recognition that it was still a good result for Ukip.

But there was one thing missing at the conference – there wasn’t much “conferring”, little chance for the membership to give their own feedback and commentary on party issues. Behind each presentation there appeared to be an implication that things were being decided at a higher level and the membership’s role was to unquestioningly carry forward the banner of the manifesto into battle without query or discussion

Now for a party that rightly despises the Big Three for being top down structures controlled by an arrogant elite convinced that only they know “the truth” the absence of an opportunity for frank discussion and honest feedback at its  conferences is, in my view, a bit of an own goal.

At least we had the “lunch tables” at Eastbourne, each one hosted by someone in the party hierarchy and, hopefully, some of the tables saw a lively sharing of views but I think that an opportunity to break up into smaller groups with a moderator and a simple agenda at one point during the day could give future conferences a more inclusive dimension.

Alternatively (and probably, in terms of logistics, easier to implement) how about a series of Saturday “workshops” for members from a smaller geographical unit than a region (e.g Surrey/Sussex?). These would be useful tools, not just to canvass the views of members on issues like the spare room subsidy (aka bedroom tax), fracking, greenfield development etc but also for allowing strangers to get to know each other and for the party to gain a “feel” for what the membership is thinking. Some input from branch activists on local organisation, recruitment and campaigning could also be threaded into the programme.

Ukip 2014 appears to be a very different animal from its previous incarnations. It clearly has a much broader electoral appeal, particularly to working class voters. For the first time in its history there are possibilities of influence, even power, both locally and nationally. There are some members who appear uncomfortable with such developments and would maybe prefer to pursue a holy grail of “purity”. I suspect that most kippers, especially the thousands of us who have joined over the last two years are more interested in practicalities than the sniffing out of heresies.

Nevertheless a tolerance of healthy internal debate and the encouragement of bottom up feedback should be built into the very DNA of a populist party. It should never be regarded, however, as the type of PR based “listening” exercises frequently undertaken by the Tory party, an opportunity to “let off steam” where the conclusions are used to demonstrate how wonderfully open the organisation is – and where later those conclusions are quietly binned when all the fuss dies down.

So, how about it, Ukip? Let’s get the membership talking and the leadership listening – then we could truly describe ourselves as a grassroots party.

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About David Riddick (15 Articles)
David Riddick is a grandfather, pensioner, retired teacher, rambler, drinker, amateur thespian, historian, political junkie and lover of rock’n roll.

15 Comments on Another triumphant Ukip Conference – but can we have more conferring next time?

  1. Brian
    This is politics, members are political, and will have their say,

    Ukip should be promoting the forum as part of our campaign, to promote democracy and free speech

    Our enemies will slag us off regardless, whether we have an open forum or not.
    The top brass need to grow a set, and let the membership speak.

    If the ukip top brass started listening to the membership, we would get better popular vote wining policy.

    • Brian Otridge // June 15, 2014 at 8:51 am //

      I have my own views on the forum, but as a moderator should not express them openly – I have instead expressed them to the key players on the NEC who are involved in this debate. Rather than writing to me, why not write to NEC members? The forum is still a pending matter on their agenda, as I understand it.

  2. Rog
    The forum was operating on a delayed posting system so extremist views could be deleted before they went up.

    There was no need to shut the forum down ,apart from shutting up the membership
    Simple censorship, and not in keeping with the ukip ideology of free speech and democracy.

    • Brian Otridge // June 15, 2014 at 7:26 am //

      As a moderator of the forum, I have to correct you here Keith. It was operating on a free post system – only members who had badly transgressed were put on pre-approval (Over 40% penalties). Since the MoS debacle, it has operated on the basis of ALL posts requiring approval.

      The trouble was that the forum was so active, with so many comments, and so few moderators, that it was not physically possible (within the scope of volunteer moderators) to read every post.

      If the NEC allow the forum to open up again, it must retain the pre-approval system, but a lot more moderators will be needed, and yes, that will mean problem posts can be nipped in the bud. However, that will still lead to screams of “censorship” as such judgement always has a subjective element to it. Moderators will therefore need to be either anonymous or very thick-skinned!

  3. Absolutely right, David Riddick. I went to the spring conference in Skegness but haven’t bothered since. UKIP’s conferences are not a chance to confer, but a chance for the great and the good of the party to talk at the foot soldiers.

  4. Keith: The website forum was shut down because trolls were expressing extremist views which could bring the party into disrepute. you know how the media latches onto anything it can to smear UKIP with.

    Policy forums, if they are going to be anything more than talking shops where opinions are pushed and arguments break out, need to have some guiding principles and some mechanisms for aggregating points of view.

    So the first debate is what those principles should be and how the mechanisms can be put in place.

    If UKIP’s policies continue to be based on pragmatic commonsense approaches, there’s no urgent rush to change a winning formula in my opinion.

  5. Policies firstly should only be made in principles of common law, ie do not cause harm or loss to anyone. if you start from there and work your way out its clear that abortion is murder and direct taxation is theft!

  6. Conservative Policy Forum membership is open to every member in a constituency. Discussion topics from Head of CPF at Central Office are provided at one or two month intervals and with questions to answer, although questions increasingly related to the HQ answers wanted and not members’ views. CPF replaced the Conservative Policy Committee, of twenty two in Canterbury, to give one local example.

  7. Simon Roberts // June 13, 2014 at 8:52 am //

    Agreed. One thing I have noticed in teh party is that there seems to be no mechanism in place for inclusion of the membership in policy-making.

    I would like to see a system similar to the old Labour Party where votes were taken at conference (without union block votes of course) and that was how policies were adopted or rejected.

    As you point out, UKIP is all about people power. I’m sure that having policies decided by the membership would result in some that were unpopular in the left-wing media – but who cares? We aren’t in this to appeal to them, we are fighting for the people.

  8. This was a regional spring conference. The annual conference in autumn is the place for motions etc. I have always been suprised (as an ex tory) just how much power and influence the grass roots in UKIP have, long may it continue.

  9. Very true, the memberships do not get to have the opportunity, for input on policy

    Even the member’s forum was shut down to prevent discussion.

    Not good for a party built on the desire for democracy and free speech.

  10. Reverend Richard de Meath // June 12, 2014 at 8:43 pm //

    Why not adopt the motto ‘Introduce a friend’ which would double the national membership overnight.

  11. Couldn’t agree more with these proposals!

  12. I agree with this article entirely. We must talk, and create policy among the grassroots so that party may stay on its libertarian, capitalist, patriotic track that will be the way this party comes in to the main limelight.

  13. This article raises some good points, some of which I agree with. More training and inter-action needed at these things.

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