What a political journey the ‘People’s Army’ has been on. From winning the European Parliament elections in 2014, to forcing David Cameron into holding an in/out EU referendum, it once seemed that UKIP were an unstoppable force. They attracted Conservative and Labour voters alike who felt that the elitist Westminster establishment had failed in recognising their concerns. There had been a growing feeling across Britain that globalisation had left people behind. While embracing free trade and exploiting global free markets had clearly advantaged the few at the top, the silent majority did not feel the benefits trickle down to them.
As politicians championed an increasingly interconnected world, the average voter in deprived areas such as Sunderland and Swansea felt no real benefit. UKIP offered an alternative to the two-partyism that has dominated British politics since 1945. They targeted working class voters’ feelings of disenfranchisement from politics and pointed blame at the British and European establishment. They successfully managed to concoct a lethal combination that eventually proved to be devastating for the ruling elite. They intertwined historic hostile feelings towards the European Union (and the unpopular polices associated with it, namely uncontrolled immigration) with the feeling that the economy was not working for them. This proved strategically brilliant as nearly 4 million people voted for UKIP in the 2015 general election. People were not just voting UKIP for the first time, they were voting for the first time precisely because of UKIP.
Many within the party thought they had reached their political zenith after an impressive and unprecedented 12.5% of the population voted UKIP in the election. Political commentators and rival parties had treated them more as a protest party than a serious political threat to the established consensus. Their sudden surge in popularity had come as a surprise to the ruling elite. The establishment, in return countered the shift in political opinion with an offer of an in/out referendum on Europe to be held in June 2016. The people were to be given a choice on EU membership for the first time since 1975. The expectation was that the country would narrowly vote to remain in the European Union and the lamentations of Eurosceptics and UKIP would be silenced for some time at least. It was, however, to be the establishment that were silenced as the country voted to leave the EU on June 23rd 2016.
This proved to be a pyrrhic victory for the party and marked the beginning of the end of UKIP. The precipitous fall from the very top in a space of less than a year is remarkable. The demise of UKIP’s fortunes started with the resignation of Nigel Farage shortly after the referendum victory. From that point the party spiralled into disrepute as Diane James’ succession of the leadership lasted 18 days before she resigned from the party citing she did not have sufficient authority, nor the full support of her party. Farage was briefly resurrected before the party elected Paul Nuttall as their leader, who currently holds the post. This period of instability was further overshadowed by unrelenting infighting, both literally and figuratively. Steven Woolfe, the party’s immigration spokesman was attacked by Mike Hookem, the defence spokesman, after rumours that Woolfe was ready to defect to the Tories and the party’s largest donor, Arron Banks publicly announced his vehement hatred of the party’s only MP, Douglas Carswell. How far the party had fallen from it’s once united front and common aim of pulling Britain out of the European Union. UKIP, once a formidable force in British politics were now the United Kingdom Irrelevance Party. The question on everyone’s lips was, and still is, “what is the point of UKIP anymore?”
Nuttall has an incredibly difficult task on his hands going into the election on June 8 and one can almost feel sorry for him. He’s desperately trying to save a sinking, purple ship. The pull factor of the party has been removed. No longer does the party have a strong, charismatic leader. That much was clear after Nuttall failed to win a by-election in what he himself called the “Brexit capital of Britain.” Also, UKIP no longer has a common aim. Their sole campaigning effort, that of leaving the European Union has been achieved. Perhaps most devastating of all for UKIP is the power of the Tories under Theresa May. Brexit voters trust the prime minister to deliver the Brexit they voted for less than a year ago and she is grabbing votes left, right and centre. Not only are Tory defectors returning to the Conservatives but so too are those who defected from Labour to UKIP.
A recent YouGov poll found UKIP on 5%
It seems that for Labour voters, voting UKIP was something of a gateway drug. They have abandoned their party once before and they are not thinking twice about doing so again. Nuttall recognises the perilous prospect UKIP faces at the next election. This much is evident in the way he is approaching it. Whereas only two years ago Farage had capitalised on unhappy Tory and Labour voters, Nuttall, this time around is struggling to hold on to even the core UKIP vote. This is obvious in the party leader’s lurch to the right in a desperate attempt to retain support. Nuttall has launched an overt attack on Islam with the announcement of policies such as the controversial ‘Burka Ban.’ These announcements are only popular with the UKIP faithful and will not win over any floating voters in the run up to the general election.
It was Enoch Powell who once said that “all political careers end in failure.” The EU referendum certainly proved this true in the case of David Cameron. It seems, though that the Kippers’ biggest victory will also be their most crushing downfall and defeat. UKIP, instrumental in determining a leave vote last June can at least claim victory in defeat after June 8th. They were never meant to be a formidable electoral force. Their sole purpose has been achieved. Now is the time to go quietly and enjoy political retirement.