UKIP’s move from pressure group to full blown political party presents challenges for both its leadership and membership.

By Oliver Ford

A sense of vindication and excitement seemed to characterise UKIP’s public meeting in Telford, Shropshire last week, with the attendees’ growing realisation that the party’s founding policy standpoints (opposition to both the E.U. and large scale immigration) are becoming the emerging central themes of the upcoming election cycle. A cycle which promises major success for UKIP.

The event, the first in a series of public meetings planned in the run up to the European elections, featured a series of short speeches by the party’s leadership, including Nigel Farage and Deputy Leader Paul Nuttall, followed by a question and answer session. The aim of the meeting seemed to be an attempt to both rally existing supporters, and simultaneously bring new members on board – goals in which the event generally succeeded, with attendees impressed with what the leadership had to say, particularly, of course, when it came immigration and Europe.

Despite this, the gathering also gave evidence to the widening gap between UKIP’s leadership and its rank and file membership, as the grouping attempts to demonstrate its maturity and credibility in the face of persistent accusations of racism.

This was felt particularly at the event when Farage stated that he wanted Britian to remain an ‘open… trading’  nation – a comment aimed at assuring newcomers to the UKIP fold that it was not a party of ‘Little Englanders’; but which seemed to hang over the audience in awkward silence. Similarly, a question tabled by an audience member asking the leadership to clarify UKIP’s stance towards abortion was met with squirms – the panel unwilling to give the hard line stance that was presumably sought by the audience member.

Many of UKIP’s older standing problems were also on display throughout the night. The audience was almost exclusively 50+ and white – doing little to dispel the view that UKIP is a party only for white middle aged folk. If the party hopes to move on, it will have to attract a wider demographic. Signs of UKIP’s usual internal bickering and disorganisation were also evident, with a counsellor from Tamworth cheerfully stating that there would be ‘fireworks’ at the behind closed doors policy meeting that was to follow the public gathering.

However, all this cannot be used to be used to deny what is apparent – that UKIP is a party in the ascendency. At times during the evening, the excitement at this fact was palpable, particularly when Farage was greeted onto the stage with enthusiastic applause. This enthusiasm was matched by Farage’s impressive ambitions for the party, comparing UKIP’s opposition to wind farms to Peel’s opposition to the Corn Laws, and bluntly stating that his aim for the 2015 General Election was for UKIP to win a Westminster seat. If Farage can confront the party’s traditional problems, and simultaneously keep the party members on side, then such an aim does not seem overly ambitious.