After the June 2016 Referendum result edged decisively to the UK leaving the European Union, one might expect the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) would be experiencing new-found success having achieved its overarching goal since its foundation in 1993. Yet in months following its success, UKIP has seen three leaders (Nigel Farage, Diane James and Paul Nuttall) come and go, and threatens to go through a fourth (Henry Bolton). More significant than its chaotic leadership, UKIP lost all 145 seats it defended in the 2017 local elections, and only won a pathetic 1.8% of the vote in the 2017 snap election.
Many reasons could be cited for UKIP’s recent failure. One could argue that it is a party of ‘big personalities’ and bitter factional rivalry, most famously demonstrated by MEP Steven Woolfe calling the party ‘ungovernable’ after being punched in the face by a fellow UKIP MEP. A case could also be made that UKIP was little more than a single-issue pressure group. With a Conservative government now determined to implement Brexit, its previous electoral support and issue ownership centred on leaving the EU has evaporated. Both these reasons are likely part of the bigger picture, but a crucial factor in UKIP’s recent failure is its racist tendencies dragging the party’s reputation through the mud. This is not to say that all members or supporters of UKIP are racist. Instead, it is the highly vocal leaders and members of the party which courts racism with its focus on anti-immigration rhetoric.
A cursory look at UKIP’s recent history since 2014 demonstrates the use of this hateful rhetorical strategy time and time again. Andre Lampitt, the star of UKIP’s 2014 European Parliament election campaign which saw the party win twenty-four seats, was suspended after tweeting that ‘[m]ost Nigerians are generally bad people’. UKIP candidate Rob Fraser was reported in several papers to have said ‘[t]he Romanians (…) they’ll stick a knife in you as soon as look at you’ at a party event. Farage himself has been under constant criticism for several comments he has made during his tenure as UKIP’s leader. This most notably included his unveiling of the anti-migrant ‘Breaking Point’ poster during the referendum campaign. This particular poster garnered over 40,000 complaints and was condemned by many politicians as engaging in a brand of ‘racist politics’ which has no place in the UK.
Clearly, UKIP’s national platform has often employed anti-immigrant rhetoric to exploit the fear and anxieties of segments of the electorate over issues such as multiculturalism and national security. Indeed, evidence indicates that UKIP has often performed best (2014 and 2016) when it simplifies complex problems and stereotypes groups of people to suit its political and electoral purposes. However, this strategy has flagged in effectiveness with the splintering of the party over Farage’s resignation. Nuttall tried to appeal to working-class voters, and further tried to exploit anti-Islamic sentiment and fears that the Brexit vote would be betrayed by the Conservative government. This ultimately failed, and with Nuttall’s resignation came the 2017 UKIP leadership contest, which saw the victory of the more moderate Henry Bolton won over more extremist voices such as Anne Marie Waters.
For many inside and outside the party, Bolton became the great white hope that UKIP might be detoxified from its racist reputation and offensive tendencies. This hope seems to have been dashed in the last few weeks with Bolton’s association with model Jo Marney coming to light, who made derogatory and racist comments about Meghan Markle. In response to these allegations, UKIP’s national executive committee passed a vote of no confidence in Bolton. However, UKIP’s leader vowed to fight the vote and stay on as party leader, notably declaring he would ‘drain the swamp’ of party malcontents.
What all this indicates is that UKIP is now facing a changing political landscape meaning that it cannot simply continue with the same strategies as it has before. The potential complications of Brexit regarding the rights of Europeans living in the UK, as well as immigration, has made segments of the population more sensitive towards discrimination and galvanised to fight against hateful and inflammatory rhetoric. For its part, UKIP could still genuinely play an important role in the future political landscape. It has often positioned itself as the ‘People’s Army’, listening to those voices often ignored or excluded by Westminster. Indeed, many have come to understand the Leave result as partially a response to the monopoly of political power held in London. UKIP could genuinely reposition itself as the party defending the rights and autonomy of localities against city politicians who would otherwise trample over them.
In addition, UKIP has consistently highlighted the problems of the high levels of immigration the UK has experienced since 2014. However, the hateful rhetoric strategically employed by UKIP members that have often accompanied this criticism is unacceptable and has no place in a modern liberal democratic system of government. If UKIP wants to survive or have any future electoral success, it needs to drop its offensive rhetoric, professionalise its party structure and emphasise its local and anti-establishment credentials.
Failure to undertake any of these changes will likely mean UKIP will collapse, and ultimately go down in British history as nothing more than a bunch of ‘fruitcakes and loonies’.