On the 28th of November, Paul Nuttall was elected as UKIP’s new leader with 62% of the vote. Could his election mark a comeback for UKIP, or will the party continue to decline into irrelevance?
Throughout UKIP’s leadership contest, Nuttall has claimed to be the unity candidate between the more moderate wing of the party (generally more popular amongst party bigwigs), and the more radical, populist wing of the party epitomised by Nigel Farage (more popular amongst regular party members).
Nuttall has worked closely with Mr Farage in UKIP and in the European Parliament, where he has sat as an MEP for North West England since 2009. Nuttall also served as deputy leader of UKIP for six years while Farage was leader, and the two appear to have developed a strong amicable and working relationship. Yet in stark contrast to Farage, who has frequently complained about leadership candidate Suzanne Evans and UKIP’s only MP Douglas Carswell, the newly elected leader has been careful not to openly criticise the party or indeed any party members. Indeed Nuttall’s silence on Carswell and his apparent willingness to cooperate with Evans have seen him at odds with some of the more die-hard followers of Farage, many of whom suspect that neither Evans nor Carswell have fully cut their roots from the Conservative party.
On the surface, it seems Nuttall appears a strong choice for leader of UKIP. Nuttall’s outspokenness will likely help him hold onto UKIP’s radical roots, whilst his experience within the party could help him identify areas within the UKIP system that can be reformed to become more transparent – an issue important to many grassroots members, particularly “Faragists”. However, while Nuttall has the potential to unify what is often considered one of the most disparate parties in the UK, he will have his fair share of problems. Simply put, UKIP’s finances are in an awful state. Between July and September 2016 the party has received only around £42,000 worth of large donations, a stark decline when compared to the £1.2 million worth of large donations between April and June. The party is almost entirely dependent on large donations from a handful of individuals, the most prominent of whom is businessman Aron Banks. In the past, Banks has been a firm supporter of Farage and publicly backed Raheem Kassam, the editor of the right-wing online news site Breitbart London, for UKIP leader. Should Banks be unwilling to continue to associate with UKIP it could spell disaster for the party as an important source of income abandons them.
Whilst there has been much discussion in recent weeks over how ideologically divided UKIP is as a party, there is some evidence to suggest that talk of divisions may have been exaggerated. An October opinion poll by YouGov found that 56% of UKIP party members thought the party was on the right path, whilst only 22% think UKIP should move towards the centre ground of UK politics. This survey suggests that for all the talk of being a ‘unity’ candidate there doesn’t appear to be too much need to unify, as most members support UKIP’s current policies. Indeed Nuttall’s large mandate suggests that the party is, for the most part, willing to at least give him a chance to lead.
Assuming Nuttall is able to overcome party divisions, however large or small they may be, and manages to control the party’s financial state the question remains: what does this mean for UK politics?
Despite having fulfilled their goal of a “Leave” vote in the EU referendum, many voters are still willing to support UKIP. Recent opinion polls suggest around 12% of people would vote for UKIP in the next general election, a figure almost unchanged from the percentage of votes received in the 2015 general election.
UKIP’s strategy is perhaps best described by Nuttall himself during his acceptance speech on the 28th of November:
“I want to replace the Labour Party and make UKIP the patriotic party of Great Britain.”
His strategy is straight forward. He wants UKIP to talk about issues that affect “real working class people and real working class communities”, and seems to have wasted no time adopting this strategy. He has already called out Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and several prominent shadow cabinet members as being disconnected and out of touch with working class people. In an interview with LBC radio Nuttall criticised Labour, stating that they “don’t want to focus on issues that matter to people on doorsteps”. He cited immigration, crime and providing opportunities for working class people as areas where Labour have failed the voters.
This should be concerning for Labour. UKIP may prove an appealing choice to more socially conservative voters, particularly working class people, throughout the country who find themselves at odds with Labour on contentious issues like immigration and crime. This, coupled with boundary changes likely to be implemented by 2020 and a strong UKIP focus on disaffected people in the traditional Labour heartlands of the North of England and Wales, means that Labour may find themselves in troubled waters. Labour are currently the third party in Scotland behind the SNP and the Conservatives, and they are almost non-existent in the South of England outside London. A freshly invigorated UKIP targeting working class people in the North of England represents a real threat that Labour can no longer afford to ignore.
However, this doesn’t mean the Conservative party can rest on their laurels. UKIP came second in several Conservative seats in South East England, such as South Thanet where UKIP came second with 32% behind the Conservatives 38% and Labour in third at 23%. An appeal to sway Labour voters in such seats could see UKIP gain enough votes to beat the Conservatives in several Southern constituencies, in addition to expanding UKIP’s representation in local councils. Although Nuttall will certainly have his hands full over the next few months, attempting to heal divisions and keep UKIP intact, should he be able to pull UKIP back together they could become a serious thorn in both Labour and the Conservative’s side.