Friday 7 October 2016

The Woolfe was on the Floor

And lo, we've gone from the Woolfe was at the door to him sprawling across the floor. I'd be lying if I said yesterday's altercation between UKIP leadership front runner Steven Woolfe and the hitherto anonymous Mike Hookem didn't provide some entertainment in the office. It had bewilderment and humour, then a touch of tragedy when it sounded as if Woolfe's injury was very serious, and then back to larfs once he was declared okay. Bonus mirth was added after the rumour broke that Hookem was on the run from the French fuzz, and there had been a car chase. Politics often isn't very entertaining, so you have to take your jollies as you find them.

UKIP's week of hell began with the resignation of its former leader, Diane James, in what must be the shortest tenure of any properly elected chief in British political history. The usual "family reasons" were cited, but it turns out the reception she got from her fellow UKIP MEP group was so rough she decided to throw the towel in. And besides, there is the suggestion her arm was twisted to stand in the first place. Then Woolfe, one of party's few politicians with something about him, admitted he'd hobnobbed with Tories about defecting. At least that was before James helpfully threw herself under a bus and all of a sudden, being the big fish in a small, toxic pond didn't seem that bad of a proposition. And then there was the playground scrapping, ostensibly on this very matter. And you know the rest.

The surprising thing about UKIP is this mano-o-mano method of resolving political differences doesn't happen more often. Newly emergent political parties are always unstable. If they are to persist for any length of time, they must stabilise through the establishment of relatively firm relationships with certain constituencies of people, be they classes and class fractions, religious groups, minority communities of some description, nationalities, and so on. As I put it previously:
In Western liberal democratic systems, the primary functional outcome of party activity is the appointment of leading office-holders in the state apparatus, enabled by and recruited from voluntary party organisations rooted in one or more constituencies of people. Parties, if they're doing their job properly, act as bridging mechanisms between parliamentary elites and the wider population. Each party condenses the interests and aspirations of their constituencies and feed them upwards, acting as a spur to and a check on those at the top. New 'challenger' parties, like UKIP, appear to stake their success on articulating grievances and issues hitherto ignored by dominant political elites and haven't, for whatever reason, been properly taken up by the existing parties. However while this may help small parties, the danger is that either the issues which led to their success become less salient over time, or might be co-opted by parties capable of forming governments. Therefore small parties need to orientate themselves to a number of constituencies and establish a linkage function if they wish to be long lasting.
The angry white, middle aged man brigade immediately come to mind when you start thinking about the party's core support. But that is cris-crossed with all kinds of contradictions. Ex-Labour folks. Thatcher fans. Petit bourgeois know-it-alls and mansplainers. Blimps and empire nostalgics. Former BNP voters. Racists. Class, status, national and gender identity, all rub up against each other, in a strictly manly, non-gay way of course, in a collective that seethes with tension. Exacerbating UKIP's problem is its 2013 rebirth as a Tory home from home, as Conservative refugees - the only ones Farage has ever welcomed - sought asylum from Dave's promotion of equal marriage. These people tended to be old, which added to a party that was predominantly made up of older people that was having little luck attracting younger members and voters, and so did nothing to halt the party's replacement problem. As it soared in the polls and threatened all the parties in parliamentary by-elections, its apparent strength was underwritten by a pronounced tendency to decline and fall.

And now Theresa May has come along and thrown Dave's liberalism in the bin. Brexit is going to be hard, so the nation must pull together and make a success of it. Working class people in left behind communities can look forward to a fairer deal, immigrants can sling their hook, and EU residents are bargaining chips to be manipulated in talks with Brussels. As Thatcher blew apart the National Front in 1979 by annexing people's fears over race and immigration, so May has undertaken a similar land grab. As we saw, she came within a whisker of snagging Woolfe before opportunism came knocking. And for a swathe of the Tory kipper wing, a return home to live their strong leader/Thatcher's second coming fantasies is too much. Since the summer, some 50,000 people have joined the Conservative Party. Even Farage's political draw can't stem the flow. The ballast provided by the shire bigot vote is heading south, and so all they have left is a doubling down on the support that UKIP attracted during the 00s - the disaffected small business people, the traditional anti-Labour working class voter, and the declassed ranks of the unskilled unemployed and retired. In other words, the electoral volatiles that can condense sharply and heavily, and evaporate moments later, as the BNP's rise and fall chronicles.

Chances are the crisis gripping UKIP won't have much of an immediate effect on the party's remaining support. After all, Farage is the only kipper most people have heard of, and that includes their voters. But ultimately a party, especially a small fringe one like UKIP can't contain the instability drawn up from its roots. It will poison its limbs, weaken the structure, and bits will start dropping off. We don't know the precise circumstances why Woolfe crashed to the floor, but it might not be that long before the party follows his example.


Walsie said...

On a more simplistic level, the fact that a group of middle aged males often from humble backgrounds, and who found themselves unexpectedly in well paid jobs which demand little, might be annoyed that through their own actions, they are turning off the money tap,may hover in the sub consciousness.

David Parry said...

Sorry, what was it that Labour right-wingers were saying about UKIP managing to accomplish in cities like mine (Sheffield) what the SNP pulled off in Scotland?

Anonymous said...

They managed it in Hartlepool this week, tbf ;)

But yeah, the odd blip like that aside, the scale of this "tidal wave" has been somewhat underwhelming thus far.