Wednesday, 27 January 2016

UKIP to miss out on a big opportunity in Wales?

Things should be looking promising for UKIP here in Wales. They had the third largest number of votes in the UK general election in Wales, making the chances of winning a large amount of seats in this years Assembly election very achievable. Whilst most constituency seats should be beyond them (although they could provide a mighty scare for Labour in some and could dent Plaid's chances of threatning Labour in others) the regional list seats will be their primary focus. The latest Welsh Assembly election polls suggests UKIP could well be on course to win eight or nine of the d'Hondt method seats. Roger Scully's Elections in Wales blog also revealed that UKIP voters are the joint most likely (along with Plaid Cymru voters) to turn out in the Assembly elections. This should point towards a large group of excited Kippers waiting with baited breath for May 5th, however several prospective candidates aren't happy certain candidates could be parachuted in from outside the country.

This stems from two candidates in particular, former Tory and UKIP MP for Rochester and Strood Mark Reckless, and Welsh-born Neil Hamilton, who was former Conservative MP for Tatton in Cheshire. Nigel Farage's former spin doctor Alexandra Phillips from Gloucester is also reported to be attempting to win a position on the list. This is where the problems start, as many in UKIP Wales are unhappy at their position being usurped by people who have "no political association with Wales". Kevin Mahoney, a Vale of Glamorgan councillor running for top spot on the South Wales Central list has threatened to quit the party if Reckless and Hamilton are selected. Farage had argued that speaking against Reckless and Hamilton for coming from outside Wales raised an "uneasy nationalist tone" however Mahoney argued it had nothing to do with candidates' nationality 
(although Mahoney did say Hamliton was "unfortunatley" born in Wales) but rather they don't live here and don't understand the political environment. UKIP General election candidate for Torfaen Ken Beswick has since joined in the criticism arguing "candidates coming in from the outside, that no one knows, and they're not Welsh, is not going to go down well".

Kippers have also been raising concerns annonymously. Blogger Guido Fawkes in his column for the Sun published a claim that Reckless had allegedly never visited Wales prior to deciding to seek election here. Whether these allegations are true or not, he is a former MP for a seat in Kent, which is about as far away as you can get from Wales whilst remaining in the UK. As is evident due to the reaction of some in the party this would not make Reckless a popular choice for election and could cause members of the Welsh public to have second thoughts on voting UKIP. However, Reckless is certainly one of UKIP big hitters and if he does end up being selected here then it would send out a message that UKIP are taking the Assembly seriously. 

As can be seen due to the General election result in Llanelli, one of the major vote blocks from where UKIP recieved support was disaffected working class voters who in Wales had either not voted for a while or voted Plaid Cymru as a protest against Labour. Undoubtedly both Plaid and Labour will be pressuring UKIP on the issue of non-Welsh candidates and they have recieved a lot of potential cannon fodder due to Mahoney and Beswick's remarks. This won't stop all of UKIP's votes as in all honesty Nigel Farage could end up in prison for a  serious crime and UKIP would still probably gain a list seat in each region, such is their support levels in Wales, but it would still stop the party from gaining a serious block of AMs. 9 AMs would send out a much louder message to the Assembly than 5 AMs. However many of the more soft nationalist voters could well move back to Plaid or Labour in such an outcome, more still may simply stay at home as many of the party's canvassers may become less enthusiatic if Mahoney and Beswick's reactions are the same as of many party members. 

Whilst UKIP will gain votes from other sources it's likely that working class voters will be the main voting demographic for them if they are to have to have any lasting impression on the Welsh electorate. This Welsh electorate in the former industrial South and North-East are notoriously anti-Tory. There is a significant number of small-c conservatives in these areas but it would be important for them to detach themselves as much as possible from allegations of Conservatism and 'Tory-policies'. This may not be so easy with two former Conservative MPs standing. Mark Reckless was a very rebellious MP (he even voted against raising tuition fees) and the fact that he defected from the Conservatives to UKIP whilst still a standing MP might mean he would be able to escape from the label somewhat. Despite this, he was born in the City of London (yes, that City) and went to boarding school in Wiltshire (if Guido Fawkes' allegations are true it may have been the nearest he'd ever been to Wales before 2015). This would not strike the potential voter as a Welsh working class hero. 

The case would be even harder to make in the case of UKIP deputy chairman and self-described Thatcherite Neil Hamilton. Whilst born in Bedwellty and raised in Ammanford he has always been on the right of the political spectrum throughout his career. In a 2013 edition of Aberystwyth University's student newspaper, the Courier (which was once under Hamilton's editorship as The Feudal Times and Reactionary Herald) an interview with Hamilton took place under the title "I was a Thatcherite Before she was". Labour, Plaid and to some extent the Lib Dems could be handed a blessing if a clear and proud "Thatcherite" is heading the list for UKIP. Even if he's standing in Mid and West Wales as is rumoured, the region that probably has the least working class voters, it could cost them a significant amount of votes in post-industrial towns such as Llanelli, Milford Haven and Hamilton's childhood home of Ammanford. Nevertheless Mid and West Wales does have a large number of traditional Conservative voters who could be persuaded by UKIP Euroscepticism to vote purple, but as the Conservatives are on the march in Wales their potential gains from this group could be minimal.        

Hamilton could also threaten UKIPs message of the party being different to the current parties in Cardiff Bay. Ukip is claiming they will break the "cosy consensus" which has develeped in the Siambr with their different kind of politicians. Yet ever since Hamilton was a teenager he had an "ambition" to be an MP in a safe Conservative seat, according to the Courier, and of course he later fulfilled this by being picked to stand in Tatton. Tatton was a safe Conservative seat which he held comfortably from 1983-1997. He lost his seat at the height of his unpopularity due to the cash for questions scandal to independent candidate Martin Bell with Labour and the Lib Dems withdrawing to back Bell. Normal service was resumed in 2001 when a young Conservative called George Osborne won the seat. Hamilton's been out of front-line politics since 1997, but it's unlikely to change the perception of Hamilton being a career politician.

The problems don't end there for UKIP. In the late Glyn Erasmus' final tweet he shared evidence which suggested serving MEP would be barred from seeking election to other bodies. Whilst this may not be final, this could stop UKIP's Welsh leader Nathan Gill from standing as an AM unless he resigns his place in the European Parliament. It is up to the party's nominating officer as to who would replace him, althoug usually it would be the second most popular candidate as was the case when the Liberal Democrats' Rebecca Taylor took over from the resigning Diana Wallis. In UKIP's case all of the nominated candidates in Wales will be standing for the Assembly except for James Cole. Cole was de-selected as UKIP Westminster election candidate for Llanelli last year and during the European election campaign he controversially said immigration was causing "the native Welsh" to become a minority. The last time a politician said something similar in Wales it cost his party dearly and it has not fully recovered to this day. I'm not fully aware of the process for replacing MEP's, but it could make Gill think twice before seeking an Assembly seat. 

The BBC has reported that there is a split in the UKIP National Executive Committee, with about half supporting taking in experienced candidates from outside Wales. Hamilton, who sits on the committee, is reported to be supporting this side. The other half supports picking candidates put forward in Wales, supported by Gill and UKIP Wales. The Committee has yet to make a decision.

In an interview with the Daily Post Nigel Farage was questioned on the parties plans for the A55, to which he responded "I can't speak on every road improvement all over the country can I" and he appeared to compare the A55 to work improvements on a "little diversion in West Sussex". The A55 is not only the main road in north Wales stretching accross 5 of the 6 local authorities in the north, but it is also part of the main link by car between London and Dublin. It is one of the few roads in the UK which has a true international importance. Therefore, it may have been expected for Farage to know more about such a major transport link in a country for which his party is taking seriously, although seeing as he comes from outside Wales this could be to some extent understandable. If UKIP press on with proposals to bring in candidates from outside Wales then it's not outside the realms of possibility that more gaffs could be on the way from people who, to use Kevin Mahoney's words, "have no political association with Wales" and therefore may not be aware of important local developments. UKIP could well be missing out on a big opportunity if they continue down this route.