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4 August 2016

What now for Ukip’s identity, as Steven Woolfe is excluded from the leadership election?

As the Ukip leadership frontrunner has been kept off the ballot, the internal politics of the party are at a crossroads.

By Tim Wigmore

“The opposition occupies the benches in front of you but the enemy sits behind you.” So Winston Churchill once said. Plenty in Ukip would agree with his aphorism.

Ukip has just won its greatest victory, one unimaginable when it was founded in 1993: the referendum vote to leave the European Union. The vote itself, let alone its result, would surely not have happened without Nigel Farage, making him perhaps the most significant UK politician since Tony Blair.   

Yet Farage’s resignation – his third, to be precise – has exposed the huge divisions within Ukip. As Ukip has grown, huge fractures – between “Red” and “Blue” Ukip, a divide not merely of economic policy but of social conservatism versus social liberalism – have opened up, concealed only by the uniting forces of Farage’s leadership and the referendum. These have now both gone. 

The row about whether Steven Woolfe was allowed onto Ukip’s ballot was not just about whether one man was able to stand as leader. It is better understood as about the kind of party Ukip wants to be.

Arron Banks, Ukip’s main donor, and many others have described the “coup” – Woolfe’s exclusion from the ballot after submitting his application 17 minutes later, which came after a series of leaks against him, including of his previous drink-driving conviction – as the work of Douglas Carswell and Neil Hamilton. Both are former Conservative MPs, and are seen as advocating a more socially liberal, libertarian approach, and one best-suited to winning over Tories.

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Against that are the more socially conservative leanings of those like Woolfe, the candidate favoured by Farage and the party grassroots. He is seen by supporters as ideally suited to furthering Ukip’s assault on Labour in the north; someone who would drum up Ukip’s emphasis on immigration and social mobility. 

“Both sides agree on the goals for the party – a new domestic focus and a broader electoral coalition enabling victories under first past the post – but they disagree deeply about the best strategy for achieving these goals,” says Rob Ford, an expert on Ukip.

He cites the longstanding tensions within Ukip as typical of parties of the radical right, “who reject and distrust traditional political authority and are therefore difficult to lead”.

At stake in Ukip’s leadership election is the most fundamental question a political party can face: what does it want to be? Does it want to focus more on wooing Labour voters or Conservative ones? Is its economic policy libertarian or interventionist? Or is it happy, willing and able to be a pick ‘n’ mix of all of the above, adapting its policies to the north and south, as the Liberal Democrats successfully did until the coalition?

A split is possible. Banks has suggested that he might bankroll a new party. More likely, though, is that the party will continue to hang awkwardly together through its internecine squabbling. And if these disputes cannot be resolved, the clarion calls will grow ever stronger: Nigel, we need you back.