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18 May 2015

Where next for Ukip?

Ukip have a history of lapsing into factional in-fighting 

By James Nickerson James Nickerson

It has been quite a week and a half for the United Kingdom Independence Party, to say the least. After garnering 4 million votes, but just one seat at Westminster, turmoil has erupted in the party. Ukip donors and members have called for a change of direction for the party, with two of Farage’s closest aides resigning from their positions, and the Ukip leader challenging an anonymous senior Ukip figure to quit the party if he cannot be more supporting.

This is despite Ukip getting 12.6 per cent of the popular vote, second only to the Conservatives and Labour. They achieved roughly twice the vote the liberal democrats got in England and Wales, and are now the third largest party in those regions.

Unfortunately for Nigel fans, the Ukip result was a best-of-times-worst-of-times result; the vote was not concentrated enough. This was not a surprise, given the nature of the First Past The Post system, where in a fully proportional voting system Ukip would have won over 80 seats.

But, “it’s a long game. Success wasn’t going to happen overnight, and especially to a party that doesn’t have the resources to target as effectively as other parties have and have learnt to do so over the years. Nevertheless, Ukip was second in 120 places, a hell of a difference to last time, when they got zero” says Jane Green, professor in the Institute for Social Change and British political election specialist.

Thus, this parliament is crucial for Ukip to consolidate and entrench their support.  It is as yet unknown what effect a campaign on UK referendum on Europe will have on British nationalism, on the importance to Europe in voter’s minds, and on the strategic role of Ukip within the party system and whether or not that would lend greater credence to the UK independence party. But, as Professor Green states “there certainly is the potential for Ukip to use this result as a springboard, to use the result as a high water mark. It depends what happens politically in the coming years.”

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Engrained in this are two areas that they can focus on: hoping that the EU referendum will cause a – not too unlikely – Tory split, in which they can attract the Tory right. History has often repeated itself, and one only has to remember the 1975 EU referendum, in which Harold Wilson allowed the Labour Cabinet to campaign on opposing sides, that was followed in 1981 by the splitting away of the Social Democratic Party, led by Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins.

Further, the next European Parliament elections are in 2019 and are proportional. For Professor of British Politics Robert Hazell, they need to use this as a catalyst for the 2020 general election.

But as of yet Ukip have not demonstrated any capacity to win elections under FPTP. Farage failed very prominently, but there were also major failures in Thurrock, Grimsby, Rochester & Strood and so on. “In terms of target seats – and make no mistake they were running a targeted campaign where a lot of resources were being extremely concentrated on a small number of seats and it just didn’t work  – there are questions to ask about what went wrong,” says Robert Ford, author of Revolt on the Right, the set text on Ukip.

This has started them down a road of toxic infighting where Farage’s actions have triggered revolt, particularly from Patrick Flynn and Douglas Carswell, says Professor Andrew Gamble of the University of Cambridge. “The party is so dependent upon him that many felt they could not do without him. So this was a way of him seeming to keep his word and resigning but then immediately being reinstated. A bit like Richard III?”

But – as in the 15th century – not everyone is behind Farage. He states that the party is merely “blowing off steam”. He may not be wrong; it is a Ukip tradition to have a big row after every general election disappointment, and “the disappointment and the row have basically happened in every election they’ve participated in,” says Dr. Ford.

The problem is, this fight may be bigger than anyone yet realises. The dispute may not just be over the outcome of the election, but one of an underlying division within Ukip. For one, it is not often that you see Stuart Wheeler going on the record. He has given them a lot of money, and is extremely influential within the party. The fact he has raised concerns means there is a pretty big dispute in the party over its future direction.

This is an increasingly public theme of which direction Ukip should go. Should it take short money? Should it allow in migrants with HIV? Should it move away from being too demeaning about the European Union?

“The general tendency to have a fight is ingrained in Ukip and other radical right parties, but there is a structural element to it as well,” says Dr. Ford. Given for some people who support Ukip a referendum on the European Union is the be all and end all, and we are going to get that EU referendum, if those supporters start to perceive Ukip as being part of the problem then they will want UKIP to change approach.

“This is a structural issue between those in Ukip who want to focus on the domestic electorate and domestic politics and those for whom the entire focus is now the EU referendum and are worried that the polarizing tendency in Ukip may damage their prospects of getting out of Europe,” says Dr. Ford.

Fortunately for Ukip, the fizzle out phase seems to have been reached. Farage’s advisors, the immediate source of tension, have resigned.

It is no surprise that Raheem Kassam’s appointment has caused so much outrage. One source who knows about the workings of the party told me that he didn’t strike him as someone who knows anything about British politics and his kooky ideas about bringing tea party stuff over from America just didn’t make any sense. He was not surprised people in Ukip focussed criticism on him, but conceded his departure is a big concession from Farage as they were close friends, which should broker a peace for now.

But if the problems persist, Ukip may have difficulties internally that could undermine its credibility. It is not just Labour that is in a leadership battle, and it may not just be the Conservatives that split in the next five years.