Within weeks of its greatest triumph, UKIP is imperilled in its deepest crisis. Here Matthew Goodwin, the party’s leading chronicler, explains how it got here, and what lies ahead.
When it comes to chronicling the story of just how Britain came to vote for Brexit, there at the centre will be Nigel Farage, and the UK Independence Party. Never mind Boris Johnson or Michael Gove or any others who led the triumphant Leave campaign, it was the role of Farage and his self-anointed ‘People’s Army’, above all else, which led the country to this juncture.
Without UKIP it is unlikely that Britain would ever have had a referendum on EU membership, let alone vote to leave the EU altogether.
Yet since the vote for Brexit the insurgent party has been thrown into an unprecedented crisis. Farage’s decision to resign once and for all as party leader has triggered an outbreak of infighting among his would-be successors, raising fresh questions not only about whether UKIP can survive its current crisis but also adapt and prosper amid a new era of British politics that has delivered everything that the Eurosceptic party ever wanted.
UKIP has only ever known success under Farage. No other leader in the party’s history has managed to deliver a similar impact. While the former metals trader spent much of the 1990s and early 2000s targeting disillusioned social conservatives on the right wing of the spectrum, from 2010 onward Farage was spending just as much time bringing to UKIP blue-collar workers who had used to vote for Labour. He oversaw a string of victories, engineering a breakthrough at local elections in 2013, winning the European Parliament elections and two parliamentary by-elections in 2014 and then, while failing to capture more than a single seat in Westminster, Farage nonetheless helped to attract four million voters.
Behind the scenes, Farage also recruited an intensely loyal group of young activists, whose sole job was to follow his command and attack his critics. Most readers will not be familiar with names like Michael Heaver, Gawain Towler or Chris Bruni-Lowe, but each played a central part in ensuring that Farage’s ordered were executed.
For much of the past two years, they have been continually at Farage’s side on the campaign trail, from events in the morning, through to late-night curries and pints in the pub.
This is one reason why the departure of UKIP’s talisman has quickly pushed the party into a full-blown crisis. So much of the party has depended on Farage and his team.
Like the vote for Brexit the roots of the current turmoil are longer than many think. While Farage was always a divisive figure among voters he could also be polarising within his own party. Whilst his closest followers pledged their complete loyalty, those who came into UKIP late on, like former Conservatives Douglas Carswell and Suzanne Evans, soon fell out with Farage, finding his tone too strident and his campaigns too xenophobic.
Relations deteriorated to such a point that during the 2015 general election, Carswell even requested that nothing with Farage’s face on should appear in his constituency of Clacton, where Carswell was fighting to be elected under the UKIP banner.
Such critics made their views known in publicised rounds of infighting, prompting Farage loyalists this summer to modify the rules that determine who is eligible to stand for the leadership. When it was ruled that only members with at least two years of service could run to replace Farage this instantly ruled out more prominent UKIP politicians who also happened to have voiced criticism of the leader, including Evans. Meanwhile other members of the front bench, like Farage’s deputy Paul Nuttall, quietly ruled themselves out of the contest.
The favourite to succeed Farage was initially Steven Woolfe, a UKIP MEP from North West England who is best known to voters as the party’s migration spokesperson and had backroom support from Farage’s team. Woolfe is an interesting figure who does not fit the stereotype of an average Kipper. He is mixed race, was born and raised in Manchester, was at one point a supporter of the Labour Party and in more recent years has talked more than anyone else in UKIP about targeting Labour’s vulnerability in its northern heartlands.
Woolfe is not wrong in his analysis of the Labour vote. One of the most interesting aspects of the referendum was the way in which it threw full light on a glaring disconnect between the official position of the Labour Party, its mainly middle-class Members of Parliament and – on the other hand – its traditional, blue-collar voters.
While the vast majority of Labour MPs backed Remain, the vote for Brexit won a majority in seven out of ten Labour seats. Look, for example, at the five constituencies that saw the strongest support for Brexit in Labour areas – the industrial and declining area of Stoke-on-Trent, Yvette Cooper’s seat of Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, the industrial and left behind communities of Ashfield and Walsall North, and Ed Miliband’s constituency of Doncaster North. In all of these seats the vote to leave the EU surpassed 70%.
Had Woolfe been quickly anointed as the new leader of UKIP then the Labour Party might well have had an even worse summer. Woolfe talked loudly about launching a new campaign that would be anchored around the need to ensure that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, including tough restrictions on EU nationals and prioritising seats for UKIP in the House of Commons. And he would have had an opportunity. The next set of elections will be the local elections in the spring of 2017 that will take place across a large swathe of Labour-held territory in Wales that just voted in large numbers for Brexit – struggling communities like Blaenau Gwent, Merthyr Tydfil, home of the industrial revolution, and Wrexham.
Meanwhile, the selection of Labour MP Andy Burnham to run as the Labour candidate in the forthcoming mayoral race in Manchester means that a parliamentary by-election will shortly be held in the northern, white and working-class constituency of Leigh, where last year UKIP almost finished second with 20% of the vote. There are also very worrying signs for Labour going forward. Jeremy Corbyn’s dismal ratings among non-Labour voters should be seen alongside the fact that on all of the most pressing issues for voters – the economy, immigration and Brexit – Labour trails well behind the Conservatives. To stand even a chance of winning a majority in 2020 Labour needs to be at least 14 points clear of the Conservatives in the polls. It is currently 12 points behind.
Luckily for Labour, however, Woolfe soon found himself opposed by members of UKIP’s ruling body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), as well as other prominent Kippers, such as Evans. Disillusioned with the Farage era, figures like Evans and Douglas Carswell argue that UKIP has been too divisive, especially on immigration, and instead want to push the party down a more moderate path. Evans has thus swung behind a rival candidate, an unknown UKIP councillor named Lisa Duffy, though there are little signs that she has mass support. Duffy is also giving a rather mixed message – while her supporters claim she would transform UKIP into a more moderate brand she has just announced her desire to ban Muslim veils in public venues, the closing of Islamic faith schools and a ban on Sharia courts. This is not exactly a softer tone.
When Woolfe then submitted his own leadership nomination papers 17 minutes late he found little sympathy on an NEC that was already looking to break from the past and curb the influence of Farage loyalists. What followed was nothing short of a full-blown crisis.
When it was announced that Woolfe could not stand other Farage loyalists, notably the party’s influential donor Arron Banks, announced that they would lobby local branches to push for an extraordinary members meeting that would be used to change UKIP’s constitution and reset the entire leadership election. While we will not know whether this will succeed until the end of the summer. If it is successful then theoretically it is possible for an entirely new election to be called and for Woolfe to be put back on the ballot. Were instead the status quo to prevail then this would leave Diane James, a UKIP MEP who is best known for her strong result at the Eastleigh by-election and surprised many by throwing her hat into the leadership contest, as the clear favourite to succeed Farage, at least as far as the bookies are concerned. James is seen as neither a Farage loyalist nor a supporter of Carswell, though she may well find herself lobbied by the Farageists to appoint Woolfe as her deputy. There are whispers in UKIP circles about a ‘dream ticket’, with James appealing to Conservative areas in the south while Woolfe focuses on Labour’s heartlands in the north.
Whatever the outcome there remains an intriguing question: could UKIP or a party like UKIP survive and prosper in a post-referendum Britain? While UKIP’s future now looks more uncertain than ever the dynamics of the referendum result do suggest that there remains clear potential for a populist party that claims to speak for the left behind and advocates a tough line on Brexit, immigration and a more exclusionary sense of British (or English) identity.
In the shadow cast by the referendum Britain has been exposed as a nation that is deeply divided along three dimensions – we are a country that is divided by social class, generation and geography.
Just look at some of the Leave vote. Contrary to claims by some, the result was actually not that close at all. While nationally Leave won by just two points, in England this lead extended to nearly seven points. If you want a sense of the challenge facing any pro-EU campaign then consider this: across the 393 areas where the votes were counted, Leave won over 70% of the vote in eight of them, over 60% of the vote in 102, and more than 50% of the vote in 263.
Or, seen from another angle, though only around 148 MPs supported Leave, the vote for Brexit won a majority in 421 of 574 seats in England and Wales. This has left many Labour and Conservative MPs profoundly at odds with the general mood in their local constituencies, which in turn will reduce the appetite to support demands for a second referendum.
The new landscape in British politics is one that, at least for another 10-20 years, will automatically favour movements that are pro-Brexit. For this reason alone, there will remain some space for UKIP, or a party like UKIP.
Underlying these statistics are two additional points that will help a party like UKIP while challenging any progressive alliance that wants to shift the public mood. First, the strength of support for Leave in areas of England outside of London reveals the quiet but stubbornly persistent power of Englishness – a force that has still not been fully acknowledged by most of our political class, never mind addressed. This undercurrent is especially challenging for Labour, which like social democrats across Europe has always struggled to sound authentic on issues of belonging and identity, because it only views these issues through the prism of economics.
If people identified themselves as English rather than British then they were significantly more likely to endorse Brexit. Second, recent analysis of the referendum vote by colleagues at the University of Oxford has revealed that around 67% of the Leave vote is actually comprised of people who at various elections in recent years ‘dabbled with UKIP’. This in effect offers UKIP or any successor party with a foundation on which to build – a generation of voters who have become used to casting a ballot for a radical, populist outsider. Long gone are the days when voters remained tribally loyal to one of the big two parties.
The strength of the Brexit vote is also underpinned by some sharp and growing divides in British society that will arguably only widen further in the coming years and could help a party like UKIP. Here are a few other facts about the referendum. Support for Leave ranged from a peak of 76% in the coastal and struggling community of Boston, in Lincolnshire, down to 21% in diverse and urban Lambeth, in London. This simple comparison tells us much about the geographical divide that in earlier years was ruthlessly targeted by Farage. Of the 50 local authorities where the Remain vote was strongest no less than 39 are in London or Scotland. But of the 50 authorities where the Leave vote was strongest more than half are scattered across the eastern half of England in left-behind communities that had often received little inward investment, witnessed an influx of EU nationals, had been struggling long before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and were then hit the hardest by the financial crisis that ensued.
This is why Farage and his advisors have spent so much of the time over recent years in white working-class communities – away from the gaze of the Westminster-focused media – directing their appeals straight into these areas.
In these neighbourhoods, Brexit voters often shared a particular profile – older, white, less well educated, working class and pessimistic about the future. It is true that some professionals and younger graduates voted to leave the EU but these were always a minority in their wider group. While 73% of 18-24 year olds voted to remain, 60% of pensioners voted to leave. While 57% of the more economically secure upper and middle-classes voted to remain, 64% of the skilled working-classes voted to leave.
And among the poorest households that earn less than £20,000 each year, the vote to leave averaged 58% but among the wealthiest households that earned over £60,000 this slumped to 35%. These divides had been building for a long time and they will be with us for a long time yet. The profound anger, resentment and frustration that they fuelled is why, by 2014, it was UKIP, not Labour, that was able to attract the most working-class electorate in British politics.
A large chunk of the left-behind simply gave up on Labour. For this reason alone, while he was unquestionably divisive Farage may yet be presented by historians as one of the most influential politicians of his generation who was among the first to recognise the electoral power that lay hidden among left-behind Britain.
Today, these strong divides are also why some in UKIP – like Arron Banks – see the seeds for a new revolt. Banks, who spent much of the past year building the Leave.EU network and has amassed a considerable amount of data, is especially interested in political campaigns in the United States and Italy. He and others have followed the rise of the Five Star movement in Italy, a populist platform that is led by a former comedian, decentralised power to grassroots members and has gone upwards of 20% in national polls. Banks views such models as offering one potential way forward for UKIP, should the party be unable to resolve the current crisis.
Of course, one major obstacle that lies in the way of both UKIP and any successor party is Theresa May and the Conservative Party, which since the referendum has made a clear pitch to UKIP voters, talking tough on Brexit and mimicking Farage’s stance on grammar schools. May and her team are clearly aware of the bigger prize. Should they successfully win back just a portion of the UKIP vote then potentially dozens of Labour-held seats could fall to Conservatives, seats where Labour MPs have slim majorities and most of the 2015 UKIP vote would transfer to the Conservative challenger.
One sign of where we may be headed was reflected in a new forecast of the next general election released by Electoral Calculus. After taking into account the current polls and forthcoming boundary changes it put the Conservative Party on 345 seats, Labour on 182, the SNP on 49, Liberal Democrats on 2, and UKIP on 1. Then again, when it comes to British politics who would predict anything anymore…
Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent and co-author of UKIP: Inside the Campaign to Redraw British Politics. He tweets @GoodwinMJ