I certainly wasn’t alone in my surprise yesterday hearing Conservative MP Douglas Carswell had defected to UKIP. Being so ideologically similar to UKIP, the party supported Carswell in his Clacton seat in 2010, but he had seemed to be won round by Tory tough talk on a renegotiation in Europe, while focussing on projects for parliamentary accountability such as the pushing for a direct right to recall. He even strongly supported David Cameron’s 2005 leadership campaign, probably enticed by the public service reform implied by the Big Society.
What I wasn’t surprised at was Carswell’s immediate decision to resign as an MP in order to re-stand as a UKIP candidate. If it’s not the failings of the EU he’s talking about, it’s the broader issue of democratic accountability, with a particular (and published) interest in riding the internet revolution to democratise institutions and localise services.
Many will rightly see Nigel Farage’s hand firmly on the tactics and timing of the announcement, with a by-election definitely recharging UKIP’s momentum just when many in Tory HQ had thought it was slowly fading. However, I firmly believe this was Carswell’s decision – he doesn’t seem the type to defect and hold on to the seat, even this close to a general election.
This brings us on to one of the most interesting tensions about Carswell’s sudden arrival into the UKIP circle – where does he fit in? If we assume for a moment he is re-elected in a Clacton by-election, what will his status in the party be as the only democratically elected UKIP member in Westminster? Nigel Farage is well known for having difficulties sharing the limelight, clashing with countless personalities in the past – will a principled and hardened backbencher be likely to roll over for Farage, the popular personality that he is, when broader policies are announced in run up to 2015?
Furthermore, Carswell is joining a party already deep in transition. As written previously by Caspian Conran on HITC, UKIP is having to compromise on its once non-negotiable libertarian principles in order to accommodate a shift in its power base. It is now more likely to grab Westminster seats outside Tory heartlands in the south, appealing more to working class voters in the midlands and north of England, disenfranchised with Europe and low living standards. This can be seen as recently as an announcement of income tax exemption for anyone on or below the minimum wage.
Just as the original UKIP candidate for Clacton is furious about not even being notified about Carswell stealing his run for election, Carswell may find his new party will quietly drop its radicalism in order to have a serious chance at breaking into Westminster come 2015 and beyond. Speaking at Warwick University in 2013, the then Conservative MP floated the idea of giving universities the power to issue their own student visas. To take this hypothetical example, if such a policy challenges a party pledge to seriously reduce all immigration, Farage will have little hesitation in letting it go, letting UKIPs traditional libertarian radicalism go with it.
With UKIP’s momentum firmly rolling on, and the policy spotlight getting brighter, tough decisions will come for the party’s inner circle. It will be likely that UKIP accommodate old Labour voters on as many policies as they can without compromising on its core messages and a libertarian slant on reform packages. It is not likely, however, that Carswell spends more years on the backbenches pushing for radical principles while accepting the compromises of another, once radical, political leader.