The chaos in the Labour Party has obscured a similarly messy leadership contest: this one for leadership of UKIP, started in the wake of Farage’s resignation. After a clearly political ruling barring those who have been members for fewer than 5 years cutting off half the tipped contenders, and the shock decision of Deputy Leader Paul Nutall to drop out, to top it all off the UKIP NEC has ruled to bar the frontrunner, North West England MEP Steven Woolfe, from the leadership contest.
Woolfe wasn’t the frontrunner by any little amount – some polling of UKIP members put him at 60% support – and his campaign has been derailed for want of a nail. Specifically, he supposedly did not make the deadline of for submitting his nomination papers, with the UKIP system only receiving his application at 12:17 when the deadline was 12:00. The NEC considered whether to let him be on the ballot in light of this, and decided against in a decision that caused 3 NEC members to quit in outrage. This has been particularly contentious as screenshots show the PayPal receipts for his application going through at 11:35, with 25 minutes to go.
This can be taken a few ways: Steven Woolfe is incompetent, the UKIP IT system is spectacularly awful, or someone is lying. Even if we take it as writ that Woolfe sent in his application with 25 minutes to go, it was foolish of him to cut it so very close. UKIP isn’t renowned for its well-designed institutions and systems, so the second option may well also be true. The third, embraced by the more conspiratorial Woolfe supporters, is possible but hard to be certain of.
This leaves UKIP with a choice of 6 relatively obscure candidates, 3 men and 3 women. They have former teacher Jonathan Arnott MEP, a Northerner who proposes creating jobs for working people, protecting industries and clamping down on immigration. There is Phillip Broughton, an activist noted for his exceptional self-belief, who supports such contentious principles as freedom, opportunity and fairness. There is Bill Etheridge, a councillor and an MEP from the Midlands, whose policies include cheaper beer, better representation for fathers in the family court system and a referendum on bringing back the death penalty, and was kicked out of the Conservatives for posing with a golliwog online.
On to Diane James MEP, a Southerner noted for her good performance in the Eastleigh by-election and her expressions of admiration of Vladimir Putin. Elizabeth Jones, an activist without an elected position, is a family solicitor, arts fan and self-described feminist who campaigned against Syrian intervention, for decentralisation of powers from MPs, and for UKIP victories in London. Lastly, the new frontrunner, Lisa Duffy, who got her papers in on time. She is a councillor from Cambridge, a mother of six popular among some UKIP activists and backed by one-time UKIP leader Suzanne Evans, who has focussed on law and order, tackling radical Islam and ending health tourism.
The answer to who will win may well be: none of them. Duffy, the most likely winner, is seen by some UKIP activists as a Trojan horse for the ex-Tory faction of UKIP – typified by Evans and Carswell, and perceived by Faragists as too soft, southern, metropolitan and treacherous. The theory that Woolfe’s exclusion is part of a coup by said faction has gained remarkable traction in the UKIP base, with Farage’s thundering about the NEC’s ‘shameful incompetence’ paling in comparison to the accusations of figures such as journalist Raheem Kassam and donor Arron Banks.
When such people threaten to go to war with UKIP, they mean: they have the will and, in Banks, the money and competence in forming voluntary organizations to make good on a threatened split and wreak havoc with the rump UKIP, though UKIP splits tend not to end well for the defectors, as Kilroy-Silk can tell you. It may well not come to that: the Faragists may reconcile with whoever the membership elects and put aside their threats of mutually assured destruction. It is also possible that if Farage really disapproves of the proceedings he will, as acting leader, simply call off the leadership election and remain in place: in UKIP’s internecine battles, Nigel always wins.
More interesting is what this tells us about UKIP’s electoral chances, and it tells us a great deal: in particular, that at present they don’t exist. While there is ample room for a socially conservative, anti-immigration, economically eclectic force on the British political scene, the absurdities of this competition have confirmed beyond all doubt that UKIP remains a party of amateurs utterly unable to be that force. In imploding like this they have failed to capitalise on the immense political opportunities opened to them by Labour’s woes and the Conservatives’ moves to the centre. Even with rose-tinted lenses, it simply isn’t a party of government, barely coherent enough to be a party of protest. Even if UKIP reunites, the scars to their unity and their reputation will not fade fast: it will be like the de-resignation fiasco, only worse. Without the force of Farage’s personality propelling them that will become even more starkly obvious. All this means that whoever comes to lead UKIP, the party faces a daunting future of its own creation.