Nigel Farage in London following the reversal of his resignation. Photo: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Seven times a loser: what's next for Nigel Farage and Ukip?

Like Clegg on tuition fees, Farage now risks being mocked for a broken promise.

“On your bike, Nigel,” the hecklers mocked. It was not meant to end this way for the Ukip leader. Standing in South Thanet, Nigel Farage expected finally to become an MP ­after six failed attempts.

When his rejection by the electorate was made official, he gave a terse speech, stressing his “relief” at the result. He then marched out of the count before the other losing candidates had made their speeches. Defeat with dignity this was not.

South Thanet, a sprawling coastal constituency in Kent with a large population of relatively low-skilled workers and high anxiety about immigration (although white Britons account for 90 per cent of its population), had seemed an ideal fit for Ukip. The abandoned shops in the centre of Ramsgate, the heart of the seat, give the impression of a town whose people have been left behind, even if Broadstairs and Sandwich, elsewhere in the constituency, are more affluent. A series of financial scandals at the local council rendered Thanet more susceptible to Ukip’s brand of anti-politics.

So, when Farage announced last year that he would stand in South Thanet, the popular assumption, underpinned by constituency polling, was that he would win. Indeed, two months before the election that was the view shared by the Conservatives. Sensing that the local branch was struggling, they sent Nick Timothy, chief of staff to Theresa May, who had worked on three by-election victories before the 2010 election, to live and work full-time in Ramsgate. The Tories sensed that to beat Farage they first needed to beat Labour, to prove that only they could stop Ukip winning. “The person that was going to win the election was the person who could unite the anti-Farage vote,” said Will Scobie, Labour’s losing candidate.

In their campaign leaflets the Tories, who gained the seat in 2010 from Labour, described the contest as a two-way battle between themselves and Ukip, and cultivated a few prominent local Labour figures who advocated voting tactically to stop Farage. “We were seen as the lesser of two evils with people who identified as centre-left,” a Tory campaign insider told me.

In the final push, the Conservatives ­focused on two main strategies. Farage was branded the “absentee candidate”, who didn’t care about the area and wouldn’t work hard as a local MP. The Tories championed the local links of their candidate, Craig Mackinlay, who walked 90 miles in the constituency in the last week before the vote. And the Tories vowed not to attempt to “out-Ukip” Farage. Though Mackinlay was a former deputy leader of Ukip and thus well disposed to winning over “soft Kippers” on the doorstep, the party avoided mention of Europe or immigration in its literature, fearing this would legitimise Ukip’s policy platform while alienating tactical voters. The focus was on the economy, jobs and local issues such as regenerating Ramsgate.

The Tories were also helped by fears of the SNP exerting power in a coalition, which resonated with patriotic voters inclined to vote Ukip. This is one explanation why many voters split their ticket on election day: although Farage polled only 32 per cent, compared to Mackinlay’s 38 per cent (and Scobie’s 24 per cent), locally Ukip won a majority on Thanet District Council.

Farage’s polarising nature may have repelled as many as he attracted to him. As Ukip sent money, foot soldiers and expertise to South Thanet, efforts mounted to prevent Farage from winning. Stand Up to Ukip hosted numerous events in the seat and anti-Ukip badges were visible on polling day in Ramsgate. There is an important lesson for the imminent EU referendum, as some who advocate leaving concede: Farage risks being as toxic as Nick Clegg was in the AV referendum four years ago.

Like Clegg on tuition fees, Farage now risks being mocked for a broken promise. “It is frankly just not credible for me to continue to lead the party without a Westminster seat,” he wrote in his memoir The Purple Revolution, published two months ago. Farage did resign but 72 hours later gave in to what Ukip’s chairman called “overwhelming evidence that the Ukip membership did not want Nigel to go”.

South Thanet wasn’t the only Ukip disappointment on election night. The party failed in other target seats such as Thurrock, Castle Point, and Boston and Skegness, leaving the Tory defector Douglas Carswell as its sole MP. The defeat of Mark Reckless makes future defections to Ukip less likely.

As Ukip painfully learned, first-past-the-post is ruthless to insurgent parties. Yet 3.8 million people voted for it on 7 May, 2.4 million more than backed the SNP. Ukip came
second in 120 seats and hurt Labour at least as much as the Tories. Across the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire, once considered Labour’s unbreachable northern heartlands, Ukip averaged 12.5 per cent in seats that were Tory-held before the election but 16.9 per cent in Labour constituencies: indeed, it was the Ukip surge that was decisive in defeating Ed Balls. Core Labour voters have proved susceptible to Ukip’s message, giving the party a base from which to launch a renewed assault on Labour at the next election: the “2020 strategy”.

It might not be as simple as that. The ­aftermath of the EU referendum will pose a fundamental challenge to the party. Tensions will simmer between blue and red Ukip – those who believe its future lies in peeling off shire Tories and those more focused on the northern working class. And eventually Ukip will need to move on from Farage who, for all that he has brought to the party, is an unparalleled loser in Westminster elections. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496