- We need to transform UKIP into a diffuse network in keeping with the digital age
- The advent of YouTube free speech activists can give us undreamt of levels of social engagement
To say we are on a roll is an understatement. Written off many times only to rise from the dead like Dracula to prey on the body of the political class, this time it really did look like we were on our uppers. On just 1% in the opinion polls, with no money and series of deeply embarrassing leadership disasters, the influential blogger Guido Fawkes declared that UKIP looked ‘done’. Now the same site has UKIP rising up once more, and the UKIP sympathizing journalist James Delingpole declares UKIP are on the verge of a spectacular comeback.
The Brexit betrayal has obviously given the party the obvious short-term boost in the polls, but there were signs of life even before then, with Gerard Batten steadying the ship and turning UKIP’s focus onto the public’s huge concern with the rise of Islam as well as a principled stand on protecting free speech.
Few would argue that given the present circumstances the leadership should context switch back to Brexit in order to both reap the maximum benefit and also undermine the position of Theresa ‘the Appeaser’ May, but in the meantime, we should be quietly restructuring the party for a much deeper and long-lasting transformation.
Make UKIP the first 21st century party of the digital age
None of our existing political parties, including UKIP, have really cracked politics in the age of social media. Politics, just like everything else, has been transformed in recent years from siloed institutions to the amorphous, diffuse networks of the internet: the action now is in the rapidly created, ever-shifting grassroots movements driven by social media rather than in rigid party structures.
That said, political parties exist for a reason: only a party has the salaried professionals, organizational structure, procedures for candidate vetting, and expertise to formulate detailed policy. They are also custodians of important intellectual traditions.
How then to get the best of both worlds? Astonishingly, UKIP, thought to be the party of old white men, is now better positioned than any other to make the transformation, having recently attracted powerful YouTube free speech activists Paul Joseph Watson, Carl Benjamin, Mark Meechan and Milo Yiannopoulos to the party. These figures have followers in their millions, who can influence political culture enormously and vastly increase UKIP’s impact.
Forget About Mass Membership: Think Social Engagement
The essential thing to understand is the concept of the ‘long tail’ and its centrality in modern digital culture: millions may watch a Paul Joseph Watson video promoting UKIP on YouTube, but only 1 in a hundred, at most, will ever join the party. Young people these days are used to dipping in and out of identities and niche interests, but political parties as they stand do not cater for their culture.
Instead of making it all or nothing, we should be able to cater for all levels of engagement. We can do this by the democratization of party policy.
The Concept Of The UKIP PolicyNet
Under Gerard Batten the party has already started to go down the democratization of policy: the latest issue of Independence magazine carried with it a voting flyer where UKIP members could propose policy areas for the party to concentrate on. We should now take the next logical step and digitize this initiative and open it up to outsiders.
One way we could do this is to create an open, online forum – UKIP PolicyNet – where party members and supporters can engage with the various policy groups. It would be free to all UKIP members but by paid subscription for supporters or special interest and advocacy groups, with each contributory post deducting from a flexible subscription fee. The fee would help keep posts serious as well as creating a revenue stream for the party that would help cover any administration or hosting costs. It would cater for all levels of engagement, from highly committed members to non-members interested in niche policy areas.
Various UKIP policy groups would be expected to interact with the forums by presenting some of the ideas at group meetings and giving feedback where appropriate. However, they would in no way expect to be bound by them. Obviously, some areas of policy are much more amenable than others to this concept. Public discussion on a highly specialized area such as defence procurement would be much less useful than, say, one on social welfare policy where public contributors will have direct and relevant experience of how the system works and, therefore, genuinely valuable observations to feed into policy. The rapid feedback loop would both help refine policy and retain an ongoing level of engagement with its supporters.
I initially put this idea to various figures within UKIP leadership a few years ago, but it was, then perhaps an idea before its time. Now, however, with the advent of Watson, Benjamin, Meechan et al. we have an unrivalled opportunity to bring a critical mass of digital engagement to our party on a previously undreamt of scale. Perhaps we could ask these luminaries to run a forum on free speech policy for starters?
Anyone interested in taking forward this idea is very welcome to get in touch with me directly.