There are currently two leadership election campaigns being ran by major British political parties. As leftwingers, the co-writers of this blog initially saw wins for Labour’s Owen Smith and UKIP’s Steven Woolfe as the worst possible scenario for the left.
Large proportions of the working class areas which voted to Leave in the June referendum were in safe Labour seats where UKIP have been growing in strength. The working class Leave vote was, in our experience as Remain campaigners, largely an anti-establishment vote. Phrases like ‘something has to change’ came up fairly often. Smith’s suggestion of a second referendum once the terms of Brexit have been made clear (as opposed to the best of all worlds mirage which was offered in June) is sensible. But the prospect of a well-off former drug company executive potentially trying to reverse a working-class rebellion against the establishment would be a dangerous one. To make this work, Smith would need to draw on reserves of charisma, persuasion and clarity of communication that he simply doesn’t have.
Labour’s ability to present themselves as being the party of the working class would be even tougher were UKIP to be led by the highly-regarded working class MEP and barrister Steven Woolfe, born and raised in Manchester’s Moss Side.
However, despite Woolfe being favourite to win, his application was submitted to the party 17 minutes after the deadline closed, leading to UKIP’s National Executive Committee voting to exclude him from the contest. So why did the man many see as Nigel Farage’s most natural successor fall at the first hurdle?
Woolfe has argued that he was excluded because he is an ally of Nigel Farage, and had ran his campaign with a pledge to abolish the NEC. NEC members Victoria Ayling, Ray Finch and Michael McGough have announced their intent to resign over the exclusion of Woolfe.
Though it’s dull, getting the paperwork right is an important part of electoral politics. We discussed this with a friend who’s acted as an ‘electoral agent’ for the Green Party of England and Wales in a local election. (They’ve asked to remain anonymous to avoid damaging the reputation of their local party.)
Politics For Beginners: First of all, what is an election agent?
Election Agent: When a candidate runs for election, the election agent is responsible for approving campaign materials, signing off on the finances, and approving the paperwork on behalf of the party.
PFB: So it’s mainly bureaucratic support?
EA: Mainly, yeah. For example, there’s certain phrases and logos that are only available to certain parties. The election agent’s job is basically to sign off the finances of the campaign, and smooth out any potential misunderstandings between the party and the council.
PFB: What’s your personal experience as an election agent?
EA: I’m in an area where the Green Party is quite underdeveloped – I volunteered to be election agent for a council election, despite being new to the party at the time. I ran as a council candidate myself, and helped other candidates through the process – for instance, getting signatures from locals in the ward where they’re standing.
PFB: What’s the purpose of getting signatures?
EA: It’s just to prove that the candidate has a basic level of support, and a basic intent to campaign. So in a council election, a candidate needs ten signatures from people living in the ward.
PFB: And it’s the same in internal party elections?
EA: As far as I’m aware, yes. The Green Party requires that candidates for leadership and NEC positions collect 20 signatures from party members anywhere in the country. As far as I’m aware, UKIP’s equivalent is 50 signatures for leadership candidates. Both are very low, easily achievable targets.
PFB: What’s your experience as an agent? What happens when mistakes are made?
EA: If the mistake is picked up on with time to spare, they can be corrected quite easily. For example, one of my signatories for my own council candidacy had moved house shortly before the election. Stupidly, I was working from the March version of the Electoral Register, rather than the April version. He was still living in the same ward, but his ‘Elector Number’ was slightly different because he’d moved. I was a little paranoid about making mistakes, and submitted my own forms a full week before the deadline – thankfully I was able to go into the council offices the next day to sign off on the changes.
PFB: Did any of your candidates leave things late?
EA: Yes. I tried to encourage everyone to get their paperwork to me more than a week before the deadline, just in case of mistakes. But there were a few who hadn’t collected all their signatures going into the last few days. In one case we found out that one of a candidate’s signatories didn’t live in her ward – we didn’t realise this until the day before the deadline. So she ended up having to call round neighbours on the morning of the final day, and finally had her paperwork signed off with the council about three hours before the deadline.
PFB: If you had been Steven Woolfe’s election agent, would you have left submission until the last day?
EA: Absolutely not. Unlike our team, Woolfe presumably has a professional staff, and that brings with it higher standards. I’m not totally clear on UKIP’s internal rules, but from my experience, if 1 of his 50 signatories had left the party or let their membership lapse, then the candidacy would probably be ineligible. Leaving submission until the final hour is just playing with fire.
Woolfe had between July 11th and the 31st to get his paperwork submitted. Even though UKIP’s computer-systems are apparently known as being quite difficult, Woolfe and his campaign manager Nathan Gill (leader of UKIP in Wales) decided to leave submission until literally the final hour of the three-week window.
Woolfe supporters may view it to be ‘common sense’ that the rule should be bent over the small matter of 17 minutes. But if it is, then how about an hour? Or four? And should the process be delayed if one of the also-rans, rather than the favourite didn’t submit on time? The fact is, Woolfe and Gill had a large window in which to submit the paperwork, and failed to do so.
From outside of the party it’s difficult to know exactly what’s happening – rather than incompetence from Woolfe and Gill, this could all be part of a political game. Prior to Woolfe’s exclusion Arron Banks, a major UKIP backer, Farage ally and funder of Leave.EU had spoken about the possibility of funding the launch of a new party. It’s plausible that Woolfe and Gill deliberately filed their paperwork late, as part of a process of painting themselves as being ‘driven out’ of UKIP.
Additionally, there had been talk that Farage and Woolfe’s opponents would claim Woolfe’s membership had lapsed.
We’d recommend this article if you want to read about UKIP’s internal conflicts in more detail but it essentially boils down to a conflict between Farage’s allies and opponents over the future of the party. (Farage, Woolfe, Gill and others on one side; Carswell, Hamilton, and Suzanne Evans among those on the other.)
Woolfe has called UKIP’s NEC unprofessional, claiming that the administrative body couldn’t find records of his membership payments until he provided his own bank statements, and has alleged that “highly confidential information” about him was leaked to the press. Perhaps we should try and broker a compromise between the factions, and say that both sides are amateurish.
This culture of infighting and division is not new, of course. 4 of the 13 UKIP MEPs elected in 2009 had left the party by 2014. Of the 24 MEPs elected in 2014, Amjad Bashir and Janice Atkinson have defected to the Tories and been expelled respectively. Woolfe’s attitude towards the NEC may be indicative of why UKIP fall out amongst themselves so often – in his mind, there doesn’t seem to be a possibility that the NEC made a difficult decision for honourable reasons, or that he may be at fault. Hilariously, Suzanne Evans has accused Farage’s allies of behaving like “hardened EU bureaucrats”, whereas Farage has claimed that his opponents on the NEC are “total amateurs who come to London once a month with sandwiches in their rucksacks”.
At the moment UKIP are strong enough to cause political disruption, but not professional enough to put forward workable alternatives. By scaring both the Tories and Labour into thinking they may lose votes to UKIP, they forced the EU referendum – one of the dominant issues of our age – onto the political agenda. But massive parts of ‘Brexit’ have still to be properly discussed. What will happen to prevent illegal immigration and tariff-avoiding trafficking between Ireland and the UK? Where will Britain hire the extra trade negotiators we need to negotiate trade deals to replace our current EU deals, and how will we finance the extra investment for this? Will British holidaymakers need to navigate extra red tape in order to go on holiday in the EU?
David Cameron, Boris Johnson and other campaign leaders deserve their share of blame, of course. But as the EU is UKIP’s central issue, they should have had clear, workable answers to these questions years, perhaps decades ago.
By all means, UKIP supporters should feel free to ignore what we have to say. The co-writers would be happy for UKIP to carry on so amateurishly. We look forward to the day when a UKIP candidate for a winnable Parliamentary seat or London mayor is ruled out because the process of filing paperwork wasn’t completed on time. If supporters want to take practical criticism as a partisan attack and refuse to learn from their mistakes, then that would be fabulous.
But if UKIP want to grow into a party built around a form of conservatism which benefits the working class, then they could be a help, rather than a hindrance, to our political culture. Getting to that point means their key figures have to learn to work together, and hold themselves to standards of basic professionalism. And that includes making sure that papers are submitted with plenty of time to spare.