Naked Politics Blogger
2014 was a tremendous year for UKIP. Not only did the party win that year’s European elections but they also claimed two seats in the House of Commons via Tory defectors Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless. Predictions abounded of dozens of seats in the 2015 General Election – this was supposed to be UKIP’s breakthrough into the political mainstream.
However, 2015 could so far be described as underwhelming for UKIP at best. Not only did the party win just one seat in Westminster but they have also been slipping in the polls and there have been some very public spats between the leadership in the wake of Nigel Farage’s “un-resignation” as leader. Admittedly, UKIP did receive almost 4 million votes and comfortably beat the Lib Dems into third place in terms of votes. However, under the First Past The Post system it is seats and not votes that matter most and the fact that UKIP could only win one seat perhaps suggests poor strategy at the local level.
That said, there is one thing that UKIP have been undoubtedly successful in doing – forcing the EU referendum. Without their pressure on the Conservative vote in the years leading up to this year’s election, it is unlikely that there would have been a referendum pledge by David Cameron in the first place. Given the centrality of a British EU exit to UKIP, their fortunes are thus firmly tied to the outcome of that referendum.
Paradoxically, Farage and the UKIP top brass may secretly be hoping for Britain voting to stay in rather than leave. If Britain were to leave the EU, UKIP would lose its raison d’être overnight. Of course it’s true that there is more to the party than just leaving the EU but without that central point of agreement it is likely that UKIP would split, as it is surprisingly ideologically diverse. On the other hand, if the UK opts to remain in the EU there will be a sizable minority who will undoubtedly set their sights on a second referendum. As we have seen in Scotland, losing a referendum can actually galvanise supporters of a particular cause. UKIP repeating the success of the SNP is unlikely but at the very least they stand to benefit from continued UK membership of the EU, particularly if the result is close.
Politics is a long game but UKIP have arguably already missed one of their biggest opportunities to grow. Leader Nigel Farage is both the party’s greatest asset but also its biggest liability. While he has been instrumental in the party’s rise he has arguably taken them as far as he can. Politically, Farage is toxic. He may be able to inspire a small minority of the electorate but he simply cannot appeal to many in the centre and he is strongly disliked by a large number. The opportunity to hand over the reins to a new leader presented itself after he failed to win in South Thanet (in fact, Farage had pledged to stand down if he didn’t win) yet he essentially chickened out by resigning and then coming back a few days later. With him as leader, UKIP will only stagnate
Policy-wise, there could be some interesting opportunities on the horizon. With the election of hard-left winger Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party likely dragging the Conservatives closer to the election-winning centre, this could provide UKIP more space on the right. Alternatively, UKIP could seek to move leftwards and capture some of the old left; white, working-class, patriotic voters that have drifted away from the increasingly cosmopolitan Labour in the past few decades. While Corbyn may be economically left-wing, his views on patriotism not to mention his associations with anti-British terrorist groups in the past is unlikely to endear himself to a group of voters that were already flocking to UKIP at the last election. Contrary to popular perception, UKIP are in fact more left-wing on some issues than they are given credit for and when Farage eventually does stand down as leader it is not hard to see them adopt more left-wing policies that many of their supporters already subscribe to. After all, UKIP’s primary ideological driving force is populism, not conservatism.
UKIP are not going anywhere just yet. To avoid stagnation however, the party must adapt to post-referendum Britain and get a proper grip on their notorious image problem – the next 5 years are shaping up to be the most important in the party’s relatively short history.