Why Nigel Farage’s shift to the centre is a big mistake

Three months after the European elections, when Ukip became the first political force to top a national poll since Labour started to break through a century ago, Nigel Farage’s outsiders look to have become a permanent part of the political landscape.

They are regularly polling between 10% and 15%, and at the next general election look set to win a significant slice of the vote, and perhaps even a few seats.

The trouble is, they have also abandoned the opportunity to be genuinely radical. The party has just unveiled its tax polices, dropping its commitment to a flat tax, and offering instead the kind of mild centrism that might have been cooked up by a moderate Conservative on a wet Wednesday afternoon.

As it attempts to broaden its appeal, it may well do the same in other areas. That is a mistake. British politics could have used some political outsiders who, even if they might not win power, could shake-up an often tired establishment consensus. Unfortunately, Farage does not appear interested in offering that any more.

With the next general election only eight months away, Britain is moving into an era of four-party politics. True, Ukip might fade back to the 1% or 2% it has scored in previous Westminster elections, but if it does the polls have got it badly wrong.

It has scored 12% or more for over a year, and in some polls it has got close to 20%. It has been doing well in local elections. It has become a significant force, and one that should out-poll the Liberal Democrats next year. Whether that translates in to more than one or two seats remains to be seen. But the party is clearly part of the electoral map.

There is nothing very surprising about that. Lots of countries have populist movements that are riding a wave of discontent with mainstream, establishment politicians. The US has the Tea Party, France the National Front, Holland the Freedom Party, Italy the Five Star Movement, and Austria its own Freedom Party.

These movements are usually anti-immigrant, sceptical about the European Union and the euro, and to varying degrees nationalistic. Ukip is a British – or rather English – version of the same phenomenon.

Disruptive though they are, minor parties can often play a vital role. They can push new ideas, and shake up an establishment consensus. The Liberals used to do that sometimes before they wound up in government. So do the Greens. In Germany, the Free Democrats have often played that role. There is certainly space for Ukip to do that in Britain.

To some extent, it has already done so. Since its rise to prominence, Ukip has certainly shifted the debate about the European Union. The possibility of the UK leaving is now a part of the mainstream political conversation.

Regardless of whether you think we should stay in or get out of the EU, it is surely a good thing to have a more hard-headed, well-informed debate about the pros and cons of membership, and Ukip has made that possible.

As its appeal broadens, it has shown flashes of originality in other areas. It is the party most enthusiastic about fracking, and has proposed a sovereign wealth fund on the Norwegian model funded out of the wealth it could potentially create.

It has flatly opposed the high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham as a ridiculous waste of money. It has argued for grammar schools to be restored across the country. There are some good ideas there – along with some barmy ones – thatbroaden out the debate.

And yet, right now, Ukip is retreating. At the last election it campaigned on a flat tax – again a valuable idea, and one that is certainly worth having a debate over. But for this election it has abandoned that idea, and instead come up with plans that are so anodyne it is hard to imagine they will excite anyone.

It wants to reduce the top rate of tax from 45% to 40%, and increase the threshold for the 40% rate to £45,000, as well as increasing the basic-rate thresholds to take low-earners out of paying anything.

It is a perfectly worthy set of proposals. But the Conservatives might well plan something similar for the top rate, and the Lib Dems are keen on raising basic-rate thresholds. None of this is going to stir anyone’s blood.

The role of a party like Ukip is to be bolder than that. It is never likely to win power – and certainly not by itself. The best it can hope to do is to come up with ideas that can change the conversation – which in the long term can be just as valuable as being in power.

The country could certainly use a more lively political debate. From Europe, to tax policy, to welfare, immigration, housing and transport, there are lots of ideas that the big parties deem too risky to touch.

Maybe we need to get rid of the green belts, close down ridiculously generous public-sector pensions, and move away from free health-care. Maybe not.

All of these proposals would be worth debating, and Ukip could put those ideas on the table. But if it is not interested in radical ideas, there is no point to it. We already have plenty of centrist parties, and there isn’t much space for another one.