The most frequent topic of conversation in the bars of the party conferences has been the rise of UKIP. Following their victory in Clacton, they end the year with an elected MP, Douglas Carswell, while the narrow defeat in the Heywood and Middleton by-election suggests they can take Labour votes in its Northern heartlands.
A victory in the Rochester and Strood by-election on November 20 has the potential to make other MPs in susceptible seats more than a little nervous. All this and a consistent polls support of 10-15 per cent demonstrates that UKIP are, momentarily at least, serious political players.
But do their transport policies stand up to scrutiny? In short, the answer at present is a resounding “no”. Currently, their policies are a long list of what they oppose with very little on what they are in favour of. And this goes to the nub of the issue with UKIP. On rail, their flagship policy is opposition to High Speed 2 (HS2). They argue it will destroy the countryside for little economic gain – a policy which is extremely popular with the Tory base in areas such as the Chilterns – yet little is said by UKIP about alternatives. On aviation, their nimbyism goes up a notch, ruling out expansion of Heathrow and Gatwick.
They support the expansion of Manston airport, but are sketchy on the details. No doubt their comparative strength in the south-east/ eastern regions of England lead them to believe obstructive policy positions are likely to yield votes next year – and in all probability they will. However, it does pose a conundrum for those focused on policy rather than elections: to what extent should resources be pointed towards trying to lobby UKIP? The answer, right now, is very little – they are totally focused on scoring electoral points rather than actually delivering proposals.
Arguments that focus on longterm, nuanced positions that require careful consideration are much less attractive than policies that pack an electoral punch. At present you can’t shift UKIP from a position that is electorally popular for one that has the national interest at heart. The lure of votes is too strong. They do have the potential to shift other parties but, even then, this is not necessarily the case – for all the trouble that HS2 causes the Conservatives, they haven’t abandoned it to stop the leaking of votes to UKIP.
For now it is a game of wait and see with UKIP: wait and see how they fare when they fight hundreds of seats at once; how they are treated by the first-past-the-post system; but, most importantly, what the impact of a transition from being on the periphery of politics to the inside of the Westminster tent will have.