Main Image Credit Nigel Farage speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference. Courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Flickr.
After a sensational referendum victory in June, a primary objective of the UK Independence Party has been achieved. This is why the party is now struggling to acquire a new identity and direction.
We will know on 28 November who will be the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) new leader. The top two contenders are Paul Nuttall, former UKIP deputy leader, and Suzanne Evans, former UKIP deputy chair. Evans’s proposals are to move UKIP to the centre ground, harnessing what she considers the best policies of the right and left of politics. Yet although this is perhaps a needed, softer trajectory for the party, it does not match UKIP’s identity as the radical anti-establishment alternative.
Nuttall has been identified as the clear favourite. He is an experienced candidate, who believes he stands the best chance of uniting the party and providing the leadership that it needs. His campaign has been repeating the narrative that – as well as holding to account the government’s mission to leave the EU – UKIP will aim to attract disillusioned, working class Labour supporters, particularly from the northeast of England, hitherto a Labour stronghold.
On the first promise, he has concurred with Nigel Farage – UKIP’s founder – that the party will play an important role in ensuring the government does not backslide on Brexit. This means that UKIP will have to position itself as the party determined to ensure that departure from the EU will also entail stringent or at least adequate immigration controls. The party could maintain its support base by merely beating this drum.
The snag is that this task is only good until 2019, the anticipated cut-off point for Britain’s departure from the EU and, if the electorate is satisfied with Britain’s new relationship with Europe, the pressure will increase for UKIP to find new, distinctive policies ahead of the next general election anticipated in 2020. This is not going to be easy. Sandwiching a political party between two established ones is always a difficult proposition in Britain. Moreover, Prime Minister Theresa May has already moved into some of UKIP’s potential territory with her recent proposals to return to a system which allows selection in secondary education and the government’s emphasis on a more ‘compassionate’ capitalism, both areas on which UKIP had distinctive policies in the run-up to the general election held last year.
While Nuttall’s rhetoric and enthusiasm have been strong, there is very little indication of just how his electoral success in the north of England will be achieved. It is true that the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn’s abysmal poll ratings indicate there will be political gaps to fill in 2020 – UKIP could well capitalise on a weakened Labour Party. However, there will need to be more substance; assuming patriotic, working class voters will want to shift to UKIP – especially if its core objective of leaving the EU had been fulfilled – would be brave. So UKIP is unlikely to escape its need to articulate more clearly what it stands for.
One option could be to push for the creation of an English parliament, a policy Nuttall has advocated for many years. However, this is problematic. While the promotion of an English identity may be popular with some voters, it automatically narrows UKIP’s appeal to only one of the UK’s constituent countries, and risks a backlash from some English voters who, while supportive of Brexit, may not take kindly to any manoeuvre likely to threaten the unity of the kingdom.
There have also been other UKIP proposals, such as, for example, curtailing foreign aid in order to free up cash for domestic spending, or reinstating the death penalty. While compatible with the traditional picture of the ‘hard right’, none of these options provide a particularly compelling vision of UKIP.
It is clear that whoever ends up in the party’s top job will face a daunting task. The EU referendum’s results have left a gaping hole in UKIP’s political agenda, with defections to the ruling Conservative Party, and more recently, former leader Diane James quitting UKIP. The physical altercation between Steven Woolf and Mike Hookem, two of the party’s members of the European Parliament, also confronted the public with a shocking example of the party’s internal disagreements, and will be an image hard to shake off. Ipsos MORI’s voting intentions research already indicates a significant drop in the party’s support.
In addition to resolving UKIP’s branding issue, fundraising will also need to be a core activity for whoever takes over. The signs so far are that this will not be easy; the party’s most generous donor, businessman Arron Banks, is apparently unsure whether he will donate again. Coping with a rebranding is a massive task; doing so while also looking for cash may be an insurmountable objective.
All in all, it is therefore possible that the party which has fought so hard to bring about the downfall of European institutions – which have occupied a central place in Westminster politics – may end up going down with them.
Chief of Staff and Executive Assistant to the Director-General