The UK Independence party has hardened its stance on Muslims, liberalism and the BBC, but its attempts to reinvent itself as an alt-right force appear to have made only limited headway.
Gerard Batten, Ukip’s leader, has courted far-right YouTube talking heads and the former leader of the English Defence Leader, Tommy Robinson, in an effort to diversify the party away from its core issue of Brexit and attract new members.
But the party’s two-day annual conference in Birmingham, which started on Friday, had a traditional air, featuring hundreds of old white men, pamphlets attacking Tony Blair, and stalls selling Nigel Farage condoms.
Mr Farage, the party’s former leader, criticised Mr Batten’s strategy of allying with the far-right — and warned that Ukip was at risk of “utter marginalisation” unless it changed direction “very, very, very quickly”.
On Friday Mr Batten retorted that he had “saved the party”, since taking over as leader in February. Ukip appeared on its last legs then, suffering financial problems and electoral defeats, but it recovered to about 5 per cent in opinion polls after Theresa May unveiled her Chequers proposal for Brexit in July.
Its membership has risen from 18,000 to nearly 24,000, although that is still barely half of its peak three years ago. Yet most of those are reportedly from the traditional Ukip demographic, not the younger generation that Mr Batten hopes to attract. “[The YouTubers] certainly haven’t brought the thousands of new members they promised,” said Paul Oakley, Ukip’s immigration spokesman. He added that what Ukip really needed were people who would show up to campaign on Saturday mornings.
One YouTuber, Markus Meechan known as Count Dankula, did address the conference, and called for a codified UK constitution to prevent the police cracking down on hate speech. Another, Carl Benjamin, whose recent YouTube videos include “The LGBT Gulags of Tolerance”, sent a recorded message, calling for Ukip to become the party of “British values”.
Rob Ford, a lecturer at Manchester university, said that Ukip had appeared to have “got its sequencing wrong”, by talking about cultural issues just when the public focus was on talks with the EU. The party risked alienating voters who agreed with its Brexit policy, but “don’t want to be in an electoral clump with Tommy Robinson”, Mr Ford said.
At the conference Ukip published a 17-page “interim manifesto”, including rightwing law and order ideas, such as separate prisons for Muslim extremists, and leftwing economic policies, such as nationalising private finance initiative contracts. It said it would scrap stamp duty, inheritance tax, most of the foreign aid budget, High Speed 2, Heathrow expansion, all road tolls, and about 400 quangos, including the British Council and the Government Equalities Office.
Mass immigration, the Crown Prosecution Service and the extradition treaty with the USA would also be scrapped, the manifesto said.
In the conference hall, the biggest cheer was for its pledge to abolish the BBC licence fee; Mr Batten said the broadcaster was “politically correct” and “anti-Brexit”, and should be funded by subscription.
There was little apparent nostalgia for Mr Farage, who continues to lead Ukip’s group in the European Parliament. “We could do with his charisma . . . but he let us down twice [by resigning as leader in 2015 and 2017 and] leaving before the battle was won,” said Barry Hodgson, a semi-retired management consultant and Ukip member from Wolverhampton. One Ukip spokesman said that the party was “a team now”.
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