By Jamie McKay
The end of February marked UKIPs Spring conference, held this year in Llandudno and taking place over the course of a day. On their first meeting since the date of the upcoming referendum was announced, spirits among attendees were high despite recent controversies amongst the Welsh leadership.
Nathan Gill, UKIP leader in Wales, has been at odds with the party’s National Executive Committee in recent months as they refuse to approve his choice of candidates for the upcoming Welsh Assembly elections. Gill and UKIP Wales want to ensure local Welsh members are selected but the NEC is keen to see former MPs Neil Hamilton and Mark Reckless stand. Hamilton was embroiled in a major corruption scandal whilst Conservative MP for Tatton in the 1990s. The Welsh arm of the party worry Hamilton’s past record will taint them and worry that candidates from outside of Wales will fail to connect with voters given their lack of knowledge surrounding Welsh issues. In a recent interview with BBC Wales Nigel Farage played down this argument stating that “the messages” not “the messenger” were what really mattered.
In spite of recent controversies UKIP are looking forward to May the fifth, which marks not just the Welsh elections but also elections to the Scottish Parliament, London Assembly and thousands of local councils across England. Farage went so far as to joke that the date marked the British equivalent of Super Tuesday. Such is the confidence within the party right now that UKIP have stated that they expect to see their “first ever stronghold of elected politicians” in Cardiff Bay. Current polls suggest UKIP will gain nine Assembly Members in the Senedd as the three main parties see their support dive in the years since the last election to the Assembly.
Though the party was previously against the devolution of powers to Wales it has since reversed its position, although their current manifesto opposed the introduction of new tax powers for the Assembly without a referendum. Other policies include the reintroduction of grammar schools and ‘university technical colleges’ for 14-19 year olds, making local health boards electable and devolving economic development powers to local authorities. In his speech to delegates Gill argued that an exit from the EU would amount to “real devolution” as powers were taken back from Brussels. Not everyone was convinced however; Plaid Cymru and Wales Stronger in Europe spokesman Rhodri Glyn Thomas went on the offensive. “Given that UKIP spent years opposing devolution altogether, their apparent conversion to giving the assembly more powers rings hollow indeed” he stated, also drawing attention to the funding Welsh business receives from the EU.
The conference wasn’t just focused on the party’s ambitious plans for this years elections, but on their hopes for June as well. Towards the end of the day Richard Murphy, head of field campaigning for Grassroots Out, garnered cheers from his audience as he outlined the campaign plan GO hope will see the UK leave the European Union. By the time you read this a major operation will have swept across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom with 500 street stalls planned. UKIP members at conference were urged to take part in this cross party appeal to British voters. Expect to see much more from UKIP and the Grassroots Out campaign as the June referendum fast approaches.