The U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) is in prime position to win its second seat in the House of Commons, with the Rochester and Strood by-election set to take place Thursday. This could be a significant victory for UKIP, but it comes at a time of increasing discord between the left and right—or populist and libertarian-leaning—wings of the party.
The latest controversy surrounds the party's economic spokesman, Member of the European Parliament Patrick O'Flynn. O'Flynn has angered libertarian-leaning members of UKIP by vocally supporting increased taxes and opposing some of the party's free market policies, culminating in a move to oust him from his position as economic spokesman. Breitbart London reports:
Senior members of UKIP are campaigning behind the scenes to have Patrick O'Flynn MEP removed as economic spokesman after his appearance on the BBC's Newsnight programme last Monday night. In the interview O'Flynn called for higher taxes on business, having previously called for a tax on the turnover of companies so they would pay even if they did not make a profit.
Political intrigue can be found in all political parties, but this attempted ouster is the symptom of a much larger divide within UKIP—a conflict The Daily Telegraph has described as being "far deeper and more divisive than anything currently going on inside the Conservative Party, or even in Ed Miliband's Labour Party."
The roots of this division lie in UKIP's attempt to represent two conflicting strains of thought. On the one hand, UKIP gained most of its initial support from disaffected members of the Conservative Party. These supporters look back at Thatcher for inspiration and support more libertarian-leaning policies, especially when it comes to economics. In conflict with this group are people who were attracted to UKIP by the party's more populist policies, such as its opposition to large scale immigration. The populists, who represent a growing proportion of the party base, are far less interested in free market reforms.
These two perspectives were able to coexist in relative harmony when UKIP was focused predominantly on opposing the European Union. But tensions have increased as the party has slowly abandoned its libertarianism in pursuit of domestic electoral success.
The problem for the libertarian-leaning section of UKIP is that the electoral strategy is working, and the makeup of the party is changing as a result. YouGov's Peter Kellner recently highlighted UKIP's changing demographics in The Guardian, writing:
Ukip is now building support in traditional working-class Labour areas. Initially, Ukip was a far greater threat to the Tories, for it took nine votes from the Conservatives for every vote it took from Labour. Since early last year, for every nine votes it has taken from the Tories it has taken six from Labour.
The growing proportion of disaffected Labour voters is likely to further weaken the influence of libertarian-leaning UKIP members. This is not just because the free marketeers will be increasingly outnumbered, but also because the populists' success will make UKIP politicians wary of taking hard line stances that might alienate their new supporters.
UKIP's pivot toward populism will likely continue regardless of whether O'Flynn remains the party's economic spokesman. To reverse course now would represent a monumental change in strategy, and an electorally risky one. It seems this is a battle libertarian-leaning UKIPers are destined to lose.