Paul Nuttall is the new leader of Ukip. After months of uncertainty following the Brexit result, the party has finally clawed back a bit of stability.
Party factionalism and a power vacuum had led to political farce. Diane James quit the leadership after just 18 days. The former leadership frontrunner and now-ex member Steven Woolfe was pictured face-down on the floor of the European Parliament after an “altercation” with another Ukip MEP. One candidate had to apologise on live television for accusing a “homosexual donkey” of “raping” his horse. All the while, Nigel Farage bounced between studios filling in the gaps.
It looked like the party was a spent force. Eurosceptics who had lost their raison d’être. A lacklustre showing in May’s local elections. Finances in chaos and about to disappear completely with the looming loss of Brussels salaries (£84,484 for each of the 21 MEPs) and resources (£5,400,000 collectively). And the departure of Farage between enforced comebacks.
With Nuttall in charge, the outlook is less gloomy. Commentators are already evoking his Liverpudlian roots and blokeish demeanour to paint him as a “threat to Labour”. And while a debate has begun about whether Nuttall has anything on Farage in terms of charisma, the conditions remain in Britain for Ukip’s second stand regardless of leader. “For me, this is only the beginning of the story,” said Nuttall in his victory speech today, quoting Winston Churchill: “This is the end of the beginning. A new chapter has opened for our party today.” This could turn out to be far more than triumphalist bluster.
To dismiss the party as a one-man, pint-toting band – nothing without Farage’s ubiquitous froglike grin and “straight-talking” charisma – is lazy. Ahead of the referendum, a Leave.EU campaign report even warned that he should be used “sparingly”, as his “divisive or reactionary tone” was thought to alienate potential Brexit voters in blue-collar jobs.
Once-safe Labour seats – particularly in areas of post-industrial decline along the east coast, some northern towns, and south Wales – could be the basis of Ukip’s future electoral success. Places where voting Tory is traditionally taboo, and Labour’s equivocation on immigration (and now Brexit), combined with complacency born of unwavering majorities, has lost support.
With both of the main parties in craven agreement that migrants are a problem (and dishonestly doing down their net benefit), voters suspicious of their foreign neighbours find their views validated. This will translate into votes for the most anti-immigration party. Why settle for a watered-down version of a hard line on immigration when a party exists that doesn’t appear to compromise?
Theresa May can tack to the Ukip-lite line of thinking all she likes. From David Cameron’s experience, we know this tactic will only really lead to concessions that result in electoral coups for Ukip in the long run. Look at Brexit. Whatever the Prime Minister sorts out in the Brexit negotiations, there will still be migrants coming to Britain to work (through whatever new immigration system is devised) because we need them to fill the jobs.
The only difference will be that, because of Brexit, people will feel even worse off than they already do. Inflation, a higher cost of living, frozen benefits and wage stagnation mean that those who have been blaming migration for their economic difficulties (and having it echoed by politicians – Ukip and otherwise) will continue to do so, especially when it becomes clear that workers will continue to come here from overseas. Anti-immigrant sentiment will continue to boost Ukip’s popularity; a feeling of betrayal when Brexit costs us will punish May at the ballot box, not Ukip.
Ukip could also increase its sphere of influence. A demographic detail that remains underexplored, according to experts like UK election specialist Professor Rob Ford and the former Labour MP John Denham who leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics, is English identity. While the socioeconomic factors behind Ukip support and the Brexit result are well-rehearsed, the people identifying as “English, not British” create a hazier picture.
According to political scientists, the number of voters who define themselves as “English” rather than “British” is increasing. This trend has been visible in attitude surveys, polls, focus groups, and the 2011 census, since the early 2000s. It is now a test of pro-Ukip sentiment in an area. Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck, says the level of “English only” voters is an indicator of Ukip’s popularity in a constituency (the more there are, the more support the party has). “The average is 67 per cent,” he tells me.
Some deindustrialised pockets of the northeast in particular reach well beyond the average. But prominent levels of English identity are emerging all along the east coast from the northern tip of east Anglia, in a “semi-circle” encompassing Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and North Cambridgeshire, according to Ford.
In the 2011 census, 70 per cent of people said they were “English, not British” in the top 20 Ukip-vulnerable constituencies (where it would need less than a 10 per cent swing to win). And according to Denham, 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of “British only” respondents voted Remain.
This extra factor could signal an expansion of fertile Ukip territory. The “Englishness” indicator cannot be written off as just another feature present in areas that have already been identified as Ukip-friendly. Parts of the northwest, and south Wales (unsurprisingly), for example, have few traces of “English only” respondents, but all the post-industrial, low-wage, underemployed prerequisites of Ukip support.
Ukip may be suffering from its own economic strife, but as populist candidates like Bernie Sanders and even Donald Trump have shown, small individual donations matched with a big online presence can do a lot for momentum. With the economic consequences of leaving the EU hitting deprived areas the hardest, a growing strand of English nationalism, and an adequate leader, there is life after Brexit for Ukip.