Admittedly, this piece is rather late in the day, with Farage having delivered his conference speech on 9 September. Still, it is worth examining what it contained for it could have implications for other parties scrabbling after the highly fragmented nationalist vote in England.
Farage appeared buoyant in his address, claiming early on that UKIP is beginning to eclipse the Liberal Democrats as the third party in some areas such as London and the North, as well as amongst voters under 24. Given that Liberal Democrat support has slumped to very low levels of late (many national polls placing them at 9% over the past month), this should not come as a surprise, for during the depths of the Expenses Scandal two years ago, UKIP enjoyed a brief moment in the sun when up to 19% of those polled claimed that they’d vote for the party. This support remained long enough for them to perform relatively well at the last EU Elections (taking 13 seats with 16.5% of the vote) but didn’t translate into a Westminster breakthrough last year, with Farage himself scoring the best share of the vote for any UKIP candidate at 17.4%. Nonetheless, Farage also drew attention to the fact that UKIP had taken second place in the Barnsley Central by-election in March, but even so, it should be borne in mind that in this Labour bailiwick their candidate Jane Collins managed to secure only 12.2% of the vote.
I have often characterised UKIP as being a traditional ‘Atlanticist Tory’ party, and this characterisation seems to me to remain pretty accurate. Indeed, Farage does let loose with a rather fogeyish statement which nonetheless contains much truth: “We are being led by a group of college kids, with no experience of the real world and who always put their careers first.” Noting with relish the demise of the Liberal Democrats since the formation of the ConDem Coalition, he stated that their name was somewhat paradoxical, given that they were “neither liberal nor democratic”.
He inveighed against the “betrayal of working class people in this country by Labour by pursuing an open door immigration policy depriving British workers of jobs,” and attacked the Labour “myth” propagated since 2004 that British workers are “lazy”: “There are huge numbers of good ordinary decent people in this country that want to work, that want to obey the law . . . [and] now UKIP is the champion for those people and not the Labour Party.” Although there is truth in this statement, I remain uneasy about aspects of UKIP’s economic policy which involve the increasing privatisation of the NHS and education.
The Conservative Party too was singled out for attack: “The myth that the Conservatives will stand up for the nation has begun to unravel.” True.
Turning to an announcement of direct relevance to one of the small nationalist parties, Farage announced that on 8 September the UKIP National Executive Committee had taken the decision that the party should campaign for an English parliament. Although this is only one of the policies held by the English Democrats, it is one pivotal to their existence, so UKIP’s decision could have a significant bearing upon the future of the former party. Out of the two, I would much rather see the English Democrats thrive, as their economic policies are more in tune with my way of thinking, but UKIP has the higher media profile and more funding, both of which place it at a distinct advantage in terms of prospects for growth as the three main parties continue to alienate significant sections of their core support.
Farage made a direct appeal to English nationalist sentiment, claiming that this decision had been prompted by “more than just the West Lothian Question”, stating that our leaders are “ashamed of the very word ‘England’” and that “We are discouraged from describing ourselves as English.” The UKIP NEC has decided that the only way to save the Union is to allow the English parity with the Welsh, Scots and Ulster Irish by providing them with a parliament of their own.
UKIP remains the only nationally visible non-toxic political party in England that could be described in some respects as nationalist. It has built links with parties of a similar stance elsewhere in Europe, including the True Finns, the leader of which – Timo Soini – also addressed the UKIP Conference (see second video below). Farage attempted to associate his party with the growth of populist parties and movements across northern Europe, arguing that this flowering represents the search on the part of peoples in these countries for a positive alternative, for “a new kind of politics”, rather than being a mere reaction to the contemporary economic situation.
In the wake of this conference, whither the English Democrats? What practical political space remains for them?