Leadership frontrunner Diane James has topped a membership ballot to become the new leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) at the party’s national conference in Bournemouth this lunchtime. Diane was in the running against 5 other candidates from different parts of the country and different UKIP factions. Jonathon Arnott MEP dropped out a few weeks ago leaving Lisa Duffy, Bill Ethridge, Diane James, Phillip Broughton and Elizabeth Jones in the race.
Diane will take over from former leader Nigel Farage. The leadership of UKIP has been synonymous with Nigel Farage for quite some time now, 10 years in fact. But when Nigel took over as party leader what he inherited was merely the concept of a political party, not so much something fitting that description. It had activists and members but wasn’t winning much. For the 2006 leadership election Nigel pledged to broaden the appeal of the party to make it more than just the ‘pressure group’ it was starting to look like.
In 2009 Nigel stepped down saying at the time that he was unable to manage being a member of the European Parliament, a candidate for the 2010 general election and the leader of the party all at the same time. He stood unsuccessfully against John Bercow (the speaker of the house). The 2009 leadership election offered a shambolic selection of hopefuls, I know, I watched them sweat, quiver and grapple with the microphone during the hustings. Lord Pearson of Rannoch was by far the most competent candidate and as such was duly elected, despite describing himself as not cut out for party politics. Gerard Batten was a reasonable second option. After a short period as UKIP leader Lord Pearson stepped down and was replaced by Nigel. For this election the competition was far more serious and we got to see amongst others, Winston McKenzie (the CHAMP) throw his hat into the ring. A fitting metaphor given Winston’s past as a boxer and his present fine collection of gentleman’s headgear, mostly fedoras. This time Nigel promised he wouldn’t run UKIP alone. He pledged to introduce a professional team and create an organisation he could lead without having to micromanage. Nigel romped home gaining the majority of all available votes.
It is a testament to Nigel’s success as leader that this 2016 leadership election has been contested with such feverance. This time the proposition is to lead a real, full, major political party. A party which took more votes than any other at the 2014 European Union elections gaining the most seats. A party which took more votes during the general election than both the Lib-Dems and SNP combined. OFCOM officially classified UKIP as a ‘major party’ for the 2015 General Election setting it apart from lesser rivals such as the Greens. The party constitution mandates that the leadership must be contested every 4 years and in 2014 Nigel was re-elected unopposed, quite an unusual achievement to be so respected as party leader that re-election is a formality rather than a fight.
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) September 16, 2016
Polling for an internal party ballot of the members such as this is always going to be a bit sketchy but it has been possible to bet on the outcome with the usual big-name betting firms offering odds. Newspaper straw-polls and some push-polling also showed up on social media but the results were all pointing in one direction and that was for a stonking victory for Diane James. An online poll of almost 4000 Telegraph readers put Diane James at 75% with the remaining 25% divided amongst 5 other candidates.
Diane James takes leadership of the party at a time when UKIP stands once again, as it has many times before, on a precipice. If it falls one way it faces death, if it maintains balance and continues to climb there is a rewarding summit to reach for. The House of Commons members bar beckons and kippers have been known to like the occasional half-shandy. What’s at stake here is the family inheritance. Party members voting for a new leader had the opportunity to view the choice as being between a responsible grateful Diane James who would build the success of the UKIP estate or potentially some bitter wreckers who would squander the family fortune spending our political capital unwisely, using the attention our brand offers and then proposing to ban lots of things. I think although the concept of liberty varies wildly in terms of definitions it is important to point out that UKIP members are broadly in favour of liberty of sorts rather than against it. During internal elections candidates who can express some sort of understanding of the concept achieve better results. Nigel rarely misses an opportunity to describe himself and the party as broadly libertarian and we have done very well following that path. The party cites itself officially as a libertarian party with that specific line written into the party constitution. Many would rightly argue that even the concept of a political party opposes liberty by its very nature with a command structure, fixed policies and a rulebook so it is easy to point to markers which would refuting the parties ideological claim to libertarianism.
When you look at the strength of feeling shown in favour of Diane James with the vote for her so far ahead of rival candidates there has to be an explanation. Members voted for Diane ahead of other candidates because UKIP members feel an instinctive inclination towards a leader they feel will give them the most professional voice. A leader which will increase party standing and build on past success. A leader who rightly acknowledges the high quality of the former leadership rather than having spent years trying to undermine it. We don’t tend to vote for radical candidates to lead the party. We’re more likely to vote for a steady hand who will keep the ship on course and that desire for continuation has been shown again on this occasion. Diane James is the ‘Business as Usual’ leadership candidate and that’s what members want, they like how the party has been run and the ballot shows they will support a leader who offers to keep that success going.
On a final note I will add that live in interesting times. I think by now even the lowest ranking political pundits (still above me) aren’t making wild predictions for the future, what happens next remains to be seen, 2016 has been an extremely interesting year in politics to date.