In politics nothing is certain and no prediction is beyond skepticism. Following the events of 2016 this is truer than ever. In order to gain some insights into UKIP and its future, I interviewed three individuals, all of whom boasted deep insight and different perspectives.
The accomplishment of UKIP’s central purpose has seen many of its members, particularly those who originally defected from the Conservative party, defect to the Tories. One example of this is Cllr Alan Preest from Gloustershire who defected to the Tories in July last year after four years with UKIP. He stated at the time that “With the referendum out of the way, UKIP doesn’t really have a point any more.” When asked to elaborate on this comment, he said that he stood by his original comments. “You got to look at it; it was always the case that UKIP only had one real objective that was to get us out of Europe. There was a lot of other manifesto and policy in there, but there was never really any joined up thinking.” He went on to describe a state of affairs during his time as a UKIP councillor where he and his fellow UKIP councillors were largely left to their own initiative with only vague directives from UKIP’s higher echelons on policy issues.
Cllr Preest went on to claim that UKIP would remain an influential force within British politics, namely as a watchdog to ensure proper delivery of Brexit, a somewhat contradictory statement given his earlier comments on UKIP’s post-referendum crisis of relevancy. He did however predict a steady decline for UKIP going forward, believing that a shift towards local, grassroots politics was UKIP’s best hope for survival.
A more optimistic vision of UKIP’s future was found through a conversation with Nathan Gill AM, the former leader of UKIP in Wales. When presented with Cllr Preest’s claims that UKIP lacked coherent policies other than opposition to EU membership, he conceded that opposition to EU membership was the primary driver of membership “in the early days” and how “we didn’t really care what the manifestos were about” but went on to claim that in later years, more people joined UKIP on other issues.
When asked about UKIP’s direction following the UK ultimately leaving the EU, Gill alluded to a vacuum of power in British politics left by the declining Labour party and general political left, a vacuum that could be filled by a libertarian UKIP party. He also emphasized UKIP’s commitment to being a political party, not just a political movement or lobby group. “I think the threat of taking away people’s elected positions makes people do things, if your just there to push them in the right direction, they won’t go in that direction”. He backed this statement up with the commonly held belief that David Cameron promised the EU referendum in response to UKIP’s growing popularity running up to the 2015 general election.
On the hot topic of Nigel Farage’s leadership and UKIP’s new leader Paul Nuttall, Gill described succeeding Nigel Farage as “the hardest job in politics” and expressed a belief that UKIP should remain ‘the party of Nigel Farage’. He remained cautious regarding the leadership of Nuttall stating that “he is prepared in his way and it’s a different style and he is a different man and he is different look” but emphasized that not enough time has passed to properly gauge how the public will receive him.
Regarding UKIP’s electoral future, Gill emphasized that a Labour party that continues to be weak and divided does provide opportunity for UKIP to gain ground, but also recognized that the widely spread, but thin support for UKIP has and will punish UKIP electorally under ‘First past the post’. Elaborating on this, Gill suggested a new policy for UKIP: “We should focus on electoral reform, some form of proportional representation; you’ve got to give people a reason to go to the ballot box”.
To round off a look into the future of UKIP it is also worth getting an expert on the subject’s two cents, in this case Professor Robert Ford of Manchester University, someone who has written extensively on UKIP and the wider European populist right.
To begin, he downplayed somewhat the importance of Nigel Farage to UKIP. He acknowledged the value of Farage’s “high media profile” and his “emollient” character, allow UKIP to remain in the news without coming across as himself (and by extension his party) openly bigoted. He also pointed to the chaos within UKIP since Farage left as evidence of his talent at keeping the fractious party in line. Ultimately however, Professor Ford did not consider him “the primary reason voters attached themselves to UKIP”; referencing shifts in public opinion on immigration and mainstream parties would have encouraged such a political drift even without Farage.
On the subject of UKIP’s ‘raison d’etre’ Professor Ford predicted a likely shift towards greater English nationalism and the spirit of “Brexit Betrayal, holding the government’s feet to the fire, making sure the voters get what they voted for”. He pointed out however that the success of this shift is largely out of the control of UKIP and indeed, given Theresa May’s pushing for ‘hard Brexit’, the spectre of ‘Brexit Betrayal’ will likely be of little use to UKIP.
In electoral matters, Professor Ford began by emphasizing the importance of the next round of local and by-elections. Positive results could create a virtuous circle of increased morale, positive media cover and party stabilization. Negative results could see a vicious cycle with the media pronouncing the death of UKIP and members fleeing the party. He also agreed with Nathan Gill on UKIP’s difficult position with regards to first past the post, adding that UKIP has been “poor at maximizing council seats in areas where they have potential for Westminster seats” due to a “lack of organizational capacity and attention span”. He soundly dismissed the idea of UKIP campaigning for election reform as a solution however. “That kind of ‘oh I’d prefer it if we changed the rules that benefitted my party’ wishful thinking has never served any party well”, pointing out that even the Liberal Democrats, the party most likely to rally support for such a move, failed to do so in the past.
UKIP is not in for an easy ride. It is suffering an existential crisis, public support has slumped and Nigel Farage’s departure has seen chaos return to the party, but announcing the death of UKIP is a premature move.
Love them or loath them, there is a strong argument to be made that UKIP brought about the most earth-shaking event in the UK’s recent political history, Brexit. The most recent YouGov/Times poll also still places UKIP as the third party of British politics at 13% and Britain is, for the moment still within the EU, facing a grueling march towards leaving it. UKIP’s favorite topic isn’t going away just yet.
In the coming months we may discover that despite that it’s leaders will undoubtedly say, UKIP has breathed it’s last with its Brexit triumph.
Alternatively, UKIP may find that in our new age of politics, an age of chaos, uncertainly, impossibility and ‘post-truth’, UKIP could come into its own in a whole new way. Chaos after all can be either a pit… or a ladder…