Is It The Beginning of the End For UKIP?
UKIP’s rise to power since 2010 makes for remarkable reading. When Nigel Farage was elected to the leadership for the second time in that year, the party was polling at approximately 3%. Within five years, the party had won a seat in a general election for the first time, managed 12.9% of the vote, and were widely regarded as victims of the electoral system after winning six less seats than the Lib Dems, who won 4% less of the vote than UKIP. Despite this setback, Farage’s party continued to climb. While their support for leaving the EU was the main draw, the party also managed to rather skilfully turn itself into a true populist party – perhaps the first in British history since the foundation of the Labour party – by making its policies appeal to the working class. Tough limits on immigration – but investment in the NHS. A conservative line in the classroom – but a repeal of the bedroom tax. The party embraced this strange mix of policies because it was supported by the working class. It was not truly left or right; it was populist and it was popular. By the time Britain voted to leave the EU, UKIP were triumphant, united, and remarkably strong. They were the only party to have fully supported the leave vote, and they had won. Polls showed them at over 15%, and Nigel Farage resigned on a high. The future looked bright for UKIP – which makes their near-collapse since all the more remarkable.
It started with the resignation of Farage, and the leadership contest that followed. It was a mess. Stephen Woolfe, the favoured candidate of the right of the party, was already arguably ineligible for standing in the contest (this owing to him failing to declare a drink-driving conviction last time he stood for an elected position). Despite this, he ran anyway, and then definitely made himself ineligible by missing the deadline to declare yourself a formal candidate. In protest to this, three members of UKIP’s National Executive Committee resigned, making it very clear that the party was severely divided. Without any competition from Woolfe, Diane James won at a canter with 46% of the vote, a full 21 points ahead of second place. However, the bungled leadership contest had already cost UKIP; polls showed them at around 13%, a three point drop since the referendum. Then, almost out of nowhere, Diane James resigned less than a month later, telling the world that she didn’t feel she had ‘sufficient authority’ to run the party – UKIP immediately dropped two more points in the polls. The party therefore had to work its way through another leadership contest, and again it got out of hand very quickly. Stephen Woolfe made sure he didn’t miss the deadline again by immediately announcing his candidacy – before getting in a fight with a member of his own party, and ending up in hospital. To round off the flurry of bad press for UKIP, Woolfe accused the party of being in ‘a death spiral’, and resigned from both the leadership race and the party. Eventually, Paul Nuttall won the leadership race comfortably, beating off the self-proclaimed ‘Islamophobe of the Year’ Raheem Kassam and centrist candidate Suzanne Evans. Finally, the leadership saga was over; UKIP’s troubles, however, were not.
Westminster voting intention:
CON: 42% (+1)
LAB: 25% (-)
UKIP: 12 (-1)
LDEM: 11% (-)
(via YouGov / 27 – 28 Feb)
— Britain Elects (@britainelects) March 1, 2017
Paul Nuttall is currently leader, and while he still has time, he has thus far not shown himself to be a particularly strong figurehead. Polls still show UKIP just in double figures, and while they remain third, the Liberal Democrats are making a slow resurgence and are threatening to overtake. Actual elections have not gone well for UKIP either. By-elections in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central both went poorly for UKIP, with the party finishing fourth in Copeland behind the Lib Dems and, more importantly, well down on the victorious Labour in Stoke-on-Trent, where Paul Nuttall himself had run. Worse still, Nuttall’s campaign had been poor by anyone’s standards, with the main incident being the candidate tarnishing his own reputation by straight up lying about a friend who had supposedly died at the Hillsborough Disaster. As it turned out, the friend had been at Hillsborough, but had definitively lived through the event – Nuttall had to later apologise for the falsehood.
So, this brings us to today and UKIP’s current position. They are not a dead party, and they still just about hold third in the polls. In fact, compared to seven years ago, they are still doing very well. But the direction they are heading is not promising. They are falling in the polls. The news coming out of the party is mostly negative. Their momentum is gone. For UKIP to thrive again, Paul Nuttall must recapture the populist sentiment that made UKIP strong in the first place – something he outright failed to do in Stoke-on-Trent. The outlook is bleak for UKIP, and many supporters may worry if their party has burned too bright, too fast.