It seems unlikely that there’ll be a more entertaining spectacle this summer than the comedy circus of British politics. The plot is ludicrous and the actors are grotesquely caricatured, but the shock-a-minute drama is unquestionably captivating.
Amidst all the chaos and confusion, the thing many have found most galling has been the harmonised exodus of Brexit’s chief protagonists from the post-referendum melee. Particularly notable have been the resignations of Ukip leader Nigel Farage and his deputy, Paul Nuttall, who spearheaded the campaign for an EU referendum. Their departures have widely been interpreted as the final parade of two political arsonists. David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, said that Farage has “crashed the car and walked away”.
However, this interpretation reeks of self-destructive short-sightedness. By dismissing Farage as a simple-minded harbinger of chaos – someone to be reviled, not analysed – politicians such as Lammy are spurning the long-term lessons of Ukip’s success. They are implying that populist politics is a passing fad; unworthy of study or intellectual confrontation.
But it seems eminently plausible that Ukip’s message will expand and mature following Brexit. The party, which won over large swathes of working-class and disenfranchised voters during the referendum, may well shed its lingering image as a protest party. This will present a distinct danger to both the Conservatives and Labour – and will be difficult to counteract if they’re too busy glibly insulting Ukip politicians.
Launching his leadership bid on 14 July, Ukip’s Steven Woolfe (pictured top, left) said that his party would “ruthlessly” pursue Labour seats in the North and the Midlands. Indeed, fearful of the cultural impact of immigration, and worn-down by 30-years of economic stagnation, Labour voters in cities like Hartlepool and Middlesbrough sided with Ukip and voted convincingly to leave the EU on 23 June. While Labour’s shrinks as an electoral force in many working-class constituencies, Ukip’s rise appears to be inexorable.
Another Ukip rising star has seized on the rhetoric of the workers’ party. MEP Jonathan Arnott launched his own leadership campaign by claiming that Brexit would be used “to create jobs for working people, to protect our steel industry and manufacturing, to rebuild our fisheries and deregulate our small businesses.” These remarks may be simplistic, but they hint at the future direction of Ukip policy. Using Brexit as crutch, the party could construct a wide-ranging manifesto focused on giving power to ordinary people – challenging Labour’s dominance in working-class communities.
Speaking to the Centre for European Reform on 28th June, former Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper tried to reach-out to wavering working-class voters. She said: “Our party is in danger of becoming a party of the cities and university towns. Labour votes in the cities who voted In must not push away the Labour voters in the town who voted Out. They are not right wing. And they are waiting for us to stand up for them.”
Yet the Labour Party will be unable to solve this electoral logjam while engaged in a self-defeating civil war.
Watching the Labour Party get skewered again will undoubtedly buoy Tories. But it would be careless to assume that Conservative voters are entirely immune from the allure of Ukip. Writing in The Telegraph on the day of his campaign launch, Woolfe emphasised his northern council-estate origins and then, a la May, remarked that all should be able to succeed in Britain: “no matter your postcode, your gender or the colour of your skin.”
This is indicative of Ukip’s expanded frontiers. Farage’s doom-mongering about repressed wages, overwhelmed public services and burgeoning crime is being supplanted by a positive message focused on opportunity and success. Ukip is casting off its petulant whinging and is starting to evolve into a grown-up political party. Yet, even as it crafts a more professional, forward-thinking image, Ukip will retain its hero status as the anti-establishment victor of the referendum. Thus, if the Tories’ centre-ground pitch proves to be a rhetorical illusion, UKIP will surely entice those who are attracted by the promise of social mobility, but are fed-up with the backsliding of mainstream politicians.
The disenfranchised and disenchanted won the referendum, but their anger hasn’t dissipated. What started as a giant middle finger to the establishment – wagged by a band of blustering protest politicians – is turning into something more sustained and far-reaching. Brexit has shaken the political compass of the nation. And, if the establishment is wilfully dismissive of the new, grown-up guise of populist politics, the chaos may have just begun.