Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Source: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour can’t stand Farage but they don’t want him to fail

Miliband’s reliance on Ukip taking votes from the Tories puts the opposition in an uncomfortable moral position.

The benefits for both Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage of debating Britain’s membership of the European Union on TV and radio tonight are clear. Each hopes to raise his profile and remind everyone that England has more than two parties worth considering in elections. (In Scotland and Wales that has been obvious for a while.)

Although they will be taking antagonistic positions they are not exactly rivals. The two leaders are fishing in fairly distinct pools of electors. Clegg is not  in the business of reaching out to anti-immigration, anti-politics nay-sayers and Farage is even less interested in charming the liberal Europhile vote. As I wrote in my column recently, the Lib Dem leader’s chief aim is to rebut the charges that he doesn’t believe in anything and serves no obvious purpose. (Otherwise known as the “if the Lib Dems didn’t exist, would you have to invent them?” question.) Standing up as the anti-Farage – the only leader prepared to call Ukip out rather than cringing in fear – is not a bad way to claw back some self-respect for a party that has taken a sustained beating in recent years.

As one senior Lib Dem recently pointed out to me, since the party is sure to be mauled in local elections and European parliamentary elections in May, there is some virtue in facing the barrage from a position of clear principle. Better, in other words, to be duffed up for believing in something and sticking to it than for being David Cameron’s anonymous lapdog.

From Farage’s point of view, anything that establishes Ukip as a mainstream threat to the Westminster status quo is a win. But there are obvious risks. His appeal so far has been built on relatively short performances and bursts of publicity – the one-minute Question Time rant; the photo-shoot in the pub. It isn’t yet clear that he can sustain a credible argument over a length of time and he has recently displayed a tendency to get tetchy and impatient when challenged. I suspect part of Clegg’s strategy will be to flush out Nasty Nigel – the angry red-faced man railing in fear and rage at the modern world. The big advantage that the Ukip leader has is that he is on the more popular side of the argument. If it was easy to make EU membership obviously attractive to British audiences, one of the very many pro-European politicians in power over the past generation might have done it.

For that reason, pro-Europeans will be cheering Clegg on tonight. Well, most pro-Europeans. An interesting question is what the Labour party will be hoping happens in the prize fight. On the issues, the overwhelming majority of opposition MPs, including Ed Miliband, are much closer to the Lib Dem position than the Ukip one. Besides, a party of the left should by instinct want to see a reactionary nationalist insurgency defeated. Ideally, Labour would be taking that fight to Farage directly but Miliband already has his work cut out taking the fight to Cameron.  And since Ukip is making life difficult for the Tories, taking their voters in crucial marginal seats, the opposition has an interest in Farage’s bubble not bursting.

By contrast, Cameron advertises himself as a Eurosceptic but he has committed himself to campaigning for an “in” vote in a referendum (albeit on the assumption that the vote follows a successful renegotiation of membership terms). His interests are clearly aligned with Clegg’s tonight. If the Lib Dem leader proves to be an effective foil to Farage, it gets easier to see how the tide might be turned against Ukip, which means voters coming back to the Tories in time for a 2015 general election. And, better still, if Clegg achieves any kind of recovery on the back of a solidly liberal pro-EU platform, it will be at Labour’s expense.

The line from both Labour and Tories is that tonight’s debate is a side-show for also-ran parties. A Downing Street spokesman yesterday said that Cameron was unlikely to have time even to watch the argument. No doubt Miliband also wants us to think that he is also too busy. And in reality most of the nation will find something better to do than sit through an hour of qualified majority voting weights and Strasbourg attendance records. But the leaders of the two big parties will, of course, be paying attention, not least because they will be looking for clues and insight into how a 2015 general election debate might play out. Cameron will be secretly rooting for Clegg. His party might not like that but the electoral logic is clear. Tories need Farage to fail. By extension, Labour need Clegg to stay beaten and Conservatives to stay frightened of Ukip. It is not a comfortable position for the opposition, wanting Farage’s arguments to be defeated at some stage but not wanting the man himself to stumble yet; not when he might still help clear a route for Miliband to get to Downing Street.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.