One of David Cameron’s biggest mistakes during his honeymoon period as leader of the Conservative Party was to casually dismiss the UK Independence Party as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists,” back in 2006. I’d like to think that this was a blunder from a leader who lacked experience, but fast forward a few years to 2012 and his handpicked party Chairman Sayeeda Warsi was trying to link them to the British National Party. These grubby attacks are not only offensive and untrue, they drive activists away from the Conservative Party and into the hands of our opponents.
During routine canvassing sessions, I’ve lost count of the number of traditional Conservative voters I’ve met over the last few months who are now looking to vote UKIP. The Cameron-Warsi solution to this problem was to smear and dismiss these defections – they are wrong, we are right and that’s that. This bizarre situation seems to only inflame the problem rather than remedy it. As Simon Richards from the Freedom Association pointed out, “It’s like the bosses of Tesco trying to regain lost market share by hurling abuse and insults at people choosing to shop elsewhere.”
At Conservative Party conference this year, my colleagues at the Parliament Street think tank decided to meet this challenge head on by organising a debate on whether UKIP is a threat to the Conservative Party, inviting a high profile defector to make the case. The panel consisted of three Conservatives against one UKIP representative in Alexandra Swann debating in front of a Conservative audience. The party formally banned her from attending at the last minute, leaving every member of the panel disgusted, all of whom said she should have been allowed to come and speak.
Another reason for UKIP’s fast rise in the polls is the clarity of its messaging. Whilst David Cameron waffles on endlessly about complex issues such as the Big Society, gay marriage, House of Lords reform and elected Police Commissioners, UKIP is talking about Europe, immigration and accountability. With this slick and easy to understand messaging, Nigel Farage is delivering a message that unfortunately resonates with a fair portion of Conservative voters.
If the Conservatives seriously want to achieve a majority at the next election, then we need to recognise and take action on this issues that are driving our supporters to other parties. We cannot afford to casually dismiss defections with slurs and smears, it’s up to us to make a case for why they should support us and get the Conservative Party back on track.