Tuesday, 5 July 2016

UKIP After Brexit

Who saw that coming? Nigel Farage's resignation as UKIP leader yesterday morning is for keeps. He does have a habit of going back on his word, as he did in 2009 and 2015, but this time - hopefully - it really is third time lucky. In his parting shot, Farage declared that its future lies in taking Northern and Midlands seats off the Labour Party, a boast that has thrown some folk into a tizz. While threats from UKIP should be taken seriously, we're not going to see a meltdown of Scotland proportions afflict our party, and I'm going to tell you why. To emphasise, this isn't a counsel for complacency, but an attempt to inject some sobriety into the discussion about UKIP.

First things first, there was no sign of UKIP doing well in the build up to the European referendum. The pollsters are totally discredited after calling it wrong, but nevertheless what they do pick up is movement, they are reliable in detecting shifts of opinion. During August and September in 2014 they all spotted the rocket firing beneath the SNP and the death spiral of Scottish Labour. Where UKIP are concerned in the lead up to the EU referendum, there was nary a sign of increased support. They were placed somewhere between 12% and 17% and never threatened a break out. The story from actual by-elections paint a gloomier picture. Since June last year, they have lagged behind the Liberal Democrats in all monthly tallies bar one - this after a solid three years as the third party in England and Wales. Of the three parliamentary by-elections outside London to have taken place since the general election, UKIP came a distant second in all three and there is very little sign they ate into Labour's vote. If Labour are losing votes to the purples, our party is picking them up from others in numbers that more than compensate. UKIP on the other hand seem to be consolidating the traditional anti-Labour working class vote. In all, if it waddles like a declining party and quacks like a declining party ...

The second point to remember is so-called "red UKIP" is nothing new. Readers may recall the BNP, as per the traditional "one nation" politics of fascist organisations, regularly went to the electorate with old Labour-sounding policies and populist nationalism. Despite the the panic at the time, the BNP peaked at 60-odd councillors, two MEPs, and a London Assembly member. Perhaps their opportunist "labourism" hoodwinked some voters, but their support was contained and thrown back. Can UKIP do any different? Well ... no. In 2013 the purples dumped their pig ignorant "libertarianism" because Farage deemed it an obstacle to electoral success. Since 2014, they have been working very hard to target Labour-voting working class areas and where has it got them? You might have expected to see significant advances in the local elections just gone, elections that took place in areas Labour can expect (and has historically) to do well in. How did it go? UKIP netted 25 councillors while Labour overall lost 11 (not 18 - lazy commentators routinely miss out the seven gains made in late-counting Bristol). These aren't the sorts of advances you'd expect to see from a party poised to clean up the Labour heartlands. In fact, it fits a pattern. In 2013, the year UKIP went big, they gained 139 councillors. In 2014, they went up 163. And last year, 176. Steady growth in non-metropolitan boroughs, rural areas, swing seats, and next to bugger all on Labour's home turf. These present Labour with a problem and a challenge, but not an existential crisis.

Thirdly, there's little point getting excited about the contest to become UKIP's new leader. The party was a one man band, despite the best efforts of getting Suzanne Evans, Diane James, and Paul Nuttall in the media. The appeal the party has among older, white working and middle class men very much depends on the figure of Farage. As I've argued before, the person and image of the UKIP leader is of the well-heeled but no bullshit gaffer who'd bollock you at work, but go out for a pint with you afterwards. No other leading kipper has the kind of charisma that can appeal to the sorts of support favourably disposed to this kind of political personality. James is a non-entity, Nuttall affects well the persona of an ignorant thug, and Evans is too Tory (and too suspended). None of these people would be known to us if it wasn't for Farage, and without him it's difficult to see what kind of future any of them have.

Fourth, UKIP is a creature of decline. Or, rather, their rise to prominence is a result of the slow-burning crisis of the Conservative Party. Here is a party that despite retaining its status as a formidable election-winning machine has been shedding members like they're going out of fashion (though, it should be noted, they have put on numbers since the referendum) and their infrastructure in a state of collapse. In addition the core vote is aging and it's not being replaced like-for-like by younger cohorts. UKIP's breakthrough owed everything to Dave's decision to push through equal marriage - it feasted heartily on former Tory activists appalled by this concession to the 21st century. Yet this source of nourishment meant UKIP was effectively born again as a declining force, even while seemingly strong and pushing forward. The problems afflicting the Tories afflicts them too, albeit with an even narrower base. Long-term their organisation and social weight is shrinking, and there is nothing that the Brexit vote can do to reverse it. In fact, if anything, it could hasten their demise.

And that's just it, what does a single issue party built around an individual do when it's mission accomplished and the leader elects to spend more time propping up bars? As an immediate campaigning focus, UKIP HQ have advised its branches to work against a second referendum, an eventuality that looks more remote by the day. I suppose the long delay between now and triggering Article 50 gives them some opportunities around hurrying Brexit up. And, as has already been indicated, continued access to the EU's single market depends on accepting free movement of people, a niche is available for an out-and-out anti-immigrant party. But UKIP's options are increasingly limited. I understand that 14,000 people joined the Tories immediately after Dave's resignation, and it's likely that number had gone up since - though I would be surprised if it's anywhere near Labour's tally. Arron Banks, the purples' sugar daddy, has urged Leave.EU supporters to join the Tories to back the dread Andrea Leadsom as Tory leader. However, that's money wasted as the party has a three month rule before one can vote in internal contests, such as the small matter of determining the next Prime Minister. Still, there is anecdotal evidence that a wing of UKIP is "coming home", strengthening the Tories and (temporarily) checking their historic decline. UKIP would become even more superfluous if Leadsom or Gove win.

There then is UKIP. A declining force sliding into a political situation in which it will find itself squeezed. Yes, there is some mileage in its core constituency, so decline is more likely than collapse, and a return to pre-2013 (or even pre-2009) levels of support cannot be ruled out. There is no basis in polling evidence or the direction of social dynamics underlying their support for believing UKIP are on the verge of making it big. Quite the opposite.


Metatone said...

The irony is that the best prospect for UKIP is in the delays to sending out Art.50 or even a block.

(This is the scenario that upsets John Harris on Twitter a lot.)

Banks wants to turn UKIP into Momentum, but I think he'll find there isn't the same level of engagement.

asquith said...

Will they give up the pretence of being a UK-wide party and become English nationalists? There are already enough Celtophobes in their ranks, I'd be horrified if that happened- it'd be even worse than we have now- but I can easily see it happening.

You can read the book by Matthew Goodwin & Caitlin Milazzo if you're interested.

Dave Kirk said...

Pete I generally agree with your stuff and am really grateful you post. In this case think its a bit early to pronounce. The labour civil war is not resolved. Its still unclear what's happening in the Tory party.

Also I know you think there is a kind of existential Gramscian style crisis that the Tory party are in. Torn free of its class roots etc.
I don't think so on several counts.
Whilst compared to what it was as an institution in the 50s (2 million members, Conservative associations playing key roles in middle class life, 45% of the vote), the tory party looks a shadow of its former self. It doesn't really need to be that kind of institution any more at the moment.
Its ideas / politics are hegemonic. It doesn't feel threatened by the labour movement and is seen as the natural party of government. It can survive off corporate donors and careerist MPS.
A perfect example of the change would be universities. From the 60s to the 80s left-wing politics were dominant in higher education. In that case Conservative students organisation are needed to rally the opposition to this. Now universities are much more corporate neo-liberal institutions people are recruited to ruling class ideas in many more subtle ways.

MikeB said...

Phil - I'd agree with your view that UKIP are unlikely to be going anywhere much in the future. Your earlier post on the wobbly future of the Tory party had some (very optimistic) thoughts, but also this caveat...

"The political pendulum...has swung decisively to the left when it comes to rights for and attitudes toward women, minority ethnicities, and LGBT people. This politico-cultural shift is taking place on a global scale and it would take a massive amount of violence to throw it into reverse."

My own view is less optimistic. On the broader economic front, I'd agree with Dave Kirk that free market liberalism is hegemonic , so the interests of the ruling classes are not really in jeopardy, even if the Tory Party is in decline.

Secondly, that, "massive amount of violence" you talk about is, when we look at the reversals of the Arab Spring, and the rising tide of ecological crises worldwide, actually happening. Breaking from the shelter of the EU will accelerate our exposure to the brutal realities.

Soon, those feeling threatened and vulnerable might well be looking for a non-aligned leader with ideas about restoring imperial greatness, British jobs for British people, the traditional family and warm beer. Now, where could they find such a figure?