This post from Alex Harrowell on the travails of UKIP candidate selection and this post on Conservative Home about the five different types of UKIPper (itself a variation on Alex’s ‘Three UKIPs’ idea) got me thinking before Christmas, and for once those thoughts remain coherent after it.

Whether you think there are three, five, seven or ninety-five of them, it’s clear that UKIP does now have a set of factions within it, even if none of them are formally organised. That’s not unusual for a party of its size and is perhaps inevitable for a party with rapid growth and an image that’s defined more by what it’s against than what it’s for. Being anti-EU or anti-immigration doesn’t come with a coherent set of other policy preferences and so people joining UKIP are quite likely to have other opinions that spread across the political spectrum.

This isn’t something that’s unique to UKIP, of course. Most growing and developing parties, especially those resting on issues outside of the normal left-right divide, have to go through a process of determining ‘but what are we for?’ at some point within their existence. One prominent example is the debate between the ‘Realo’ and ‘Fundi’ wings of the German Greens after their first electoral breakthroughs, which was mirrored in the debate over the Green 2000 proposals in the British Greens.

At some point, UKIP is going to have to go through their version of that fight. There’s signs that it might have kicked off in a small way already with the current fights going on in the party over candidate selection for the General Election, but the party has an advantage in that it has a leader who isn’t strongly tied to any faction. In terms of party organisation, Farage’s ability to say what his audience wants to hear and to not commit too strongly to any positive policy means that all the factions, however nascent they may be, think he’s one of them.

There’s an idea put forward in the academic literature on party leadership (see Stark or Quinn, for instance) that’s relevant here – the first thing a potential party leader must be able to do to win the leadership is to be able to unify the party. While others might seem more acceptable in policy terms or electability, the key to becoming a leader is to be able to appeal to (and lead) all the sections of the party, not one.

The big question for UKIP is what happens if and when Farage decides (again) that he doesn’t want to be leader any more? Two interesting factors come into play: first, there doesn’t appear to be anyone else in the party who can unify them in the way Farage does, and second, the way the party elects its leaders doesn’t do anything to encourage a unifier. Where most parties use some form of preference voting in their leadership elections (even the Tories have an exhaustive ballot of MPs) to ensure the winner has to be able to get majority support, UKIP’s leadership elections are first past the post, where the winner merely needs a plurality of support. What that means is that to become UKIP leader when there’s a vacancy, you don’t need to appeal to the majority of the party. Instead, you just need to get the support of the largest minority in the party and hope that the rest of the factions remain divided. In a party where no one’s quite sure of the relative sizes and strengths of the factions, what we could see is a very vicious battle for dominance.

It actually puts Farage into a strong position, as he can use the ‘apres moi, la deluge’ argument to see off any challenges and threats to his leadership, but if he chooses to go, we may well find that UKIP can keep entertaining us in new ways.