“MY AMBITION is not insignificant,” grinned Paul Nuttall after taking over from Nigel Farage as leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) on November 28th (pictured above, left, with Mr Farage). “I want to replace the Labour Party and make UKIP the patriotic voice of working people.” For a man elected with just 9,622 votes it was a bold statement. Jeremy Corbyn was returned as Labour leader with 313,209 votes in September. Yet Corbynistas need only look to Scotland, where the Labour vote crumbled in the 2015 general election after decades of political dominance, as a warning of what could happen in northern England and Wales.
UKIP seems an unlikely home for working-class voters. The party’s route to political influence began at the London School of Economics, where Alan Sked, a historian, established the Anti-Federalist League in 1991 (this week he called for UKIP to be dissolved after the referendum vote for Brexit). It then wound its way through the home counties, collecting support from disaffected middle-class Tories won over by Mr Farage, a pinstriped former City trader. Today, the party membership includes more free-market libertarians than trade unionists.
Yet Mr Nuttall has spotted a political opening. His calculation is that white working-class voters in the old industrial heartlands no longer have much in common with Labour, the party they have traditionally backed. Mr Nuttall gave a taste of the attacks to come in his victory speech. “[Labour] have a leader that will not sing the national anthem. A shadow chancellor who seems to admire the IRA more than he does the British army. A shadow foreign secretary who sneers at the English flag. And a shadow home secretary who advocates unlimited immigration.” Evidence of a disconnect between Labour and its voters is not hard to find. Perhaps most revealing, two-thirds of the party’s MPs voted a different way from the majority of their constituents in the referendum.
Can second- and third-generation Labour voters, who have a congenital dislike for the Tories, be persuaded to vote for UKIP? If it is possible, says Caitlin Milazzo of Nottingham University, Mr Nuttall is clearly the “man for the job”. The 40-year-old grew up in Bootle, a hardscrabble town just outside Liverpool. In his speech he combined emphasis on traditional UKIP causes like immigration and Brexit with talk of greater social mobility, English devolution and more cash for the National Health Service. He proposes a referendum on the return of capital punishment.
That could prove an attractive combination, for these issues unite unhappy Labour voters and Kippers (just 9% of whom consider themselves left-wing, according to YouGov, a pollster). Indeed, some research suggests that there may be more appetite for populist causes than UKIP has been able to tap into. One analysis, by the British Election Study, found that 67% of Leave voters had “at least dabbled” with voting UKIP. YouGov calculates that 17% of Labour voters hold “authoritarian populist” views that chime with things that UKIP promotes. The party’s populist counterparts in France and the Netherlands poll considerably higher. Rancorous Brexit negotiations, stagnant real wages and cuts to public services could fuel public discontent with mainstream politics.
Yet several barriers stand in Mr Nuttall’s way. First, his party. Since its referendum success UKIP has not just lost its main purpose but also descended into farce. Diane James, who was elected as Mr Farage’s successor on September 16th, resigned 18 days later, complaining that she lacked the support of her colleagues. She later left the party. Steven Woolfe, a member of the European Parliament who had long been talked of as a future leader, also quit, although only after being hospitalised following a fight with a fellow UKIP MEP.
Mr Nuttall has been conciliatory. He has said he will lead neither a “Faragista UKIP” focused on immigration nor a “Carswellite UKIP” talking up the benefits of Brexit. He has appointed Suzanne Evans, his main rival for the leadership, as his deputy and policy chief. Yet to have any success, he will also have to improve the party’s organisation. Candidates for the 2015 election were selected late in the day, notes Ms Milazzo, which meant that most failed to build local reputations and there was no time to weed out cranks (one described Islam as an “evil cult”).
A lack of money may hinder such efforts. With Brexit achieved, donors are less willing to open their chequebooks. According to the Electoral Commission, an official watchdog, UKIP raised just £43,000 ($53,000) between June and September. Even the British National Party, a racist far-right outfit, attracted more money. Arron Banks, a prominent donor, has said that he may now focus on a new movement seeking to oust career MPs. Leadership ballots were sent to just 32,757 Kippers, suggesting the party’s membership has fallen from around 46,000 at the 2015 election. Without Mr Farage’s pulling-power, UKIP may struggle to turn the situation around.
Another barrier is the electoral system. UKIP’s vote is dispersed across the country, which makes winning seats tricky in Britain’s first-past-the-post elections. UKIP will have to challenge the Tories as well as Labour if it is to win more than a handful of seats (see chart). As it stands, that looks unlikely. With tough noises on Brexit and immigration, and support for selective grammar schools, Mrs May has made the Conservative Party more appealing to Kippers than it has been for a decade. “We have a watching-and-prodding brief on Europe at the moment,” admits a UKIP spokesman. Difficult negotiations or hints that there may be a soft Brexit could change that.
Until then, Mr Nuttall’s focus on Labour makes sense. Nevertheless, the scale of the task should not be underestimated. Even a 10% swing from Labour to UKIP would see the party pick up just five seats. Yet, as other countries have found out, populist uprisings often come with little warning. UKIP may be in a terrible mess. But Mr Corbyn ought to be worried.