The Brexit Party’s complaints about postal votes show that it is just a rebranded Ukip

The strengths, weaknesses and ultimate limitations remain essentially unchanged. 

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The Brexit Party left Peterborough the same way Ukip left Eastleigh, and Wythenshawe, and Newark, and Middleton: clutching a silver medal and snarling about postal votes and the ethnic vote.

It attests to two things: the extent to which the Brexit Party is just Ukip rebranded, with the same strengths and the same weaknesses, and to its tendency for belligerence in the face of electoral disappointment.

Postal votes are a vital tool for all the established parties, because someone with a postal vote is significantly more likely to vote than someone without a postal vote, and because the postal vote deadline is sooner, they have less time to change their mind. This is why parties spend a lot of time outside election season finding their voters and getting them onto postal votes.

The Brexit Party didn’t have the time to find its most committed voters, let alone get them onto postal votes, and would have been unable to even attempt to persuade and convert the voters who had long since voted for its opponents by post. 

The closeness of the margin and the longstanding tendency of Farage-led parties to be dysfunctional at a local level will mean that postal votes will have tipped the outcome away from the Brexit Party in Peterborough, just as it did to Ukip in Eastleigh in a 2013 by-election. But the result also attests to Labour’s organisational good health, and that the vote of one British citizen is no more legitimate than another, no matter the colour of their skin.

We know that the Brexit party has all the strengths of Farage’s Ukip – its telegenic leader, who is a past master at manipulating the broadcasters, plus a slew of experienced veterans who know how to thrive as a minor party – but the open question about the new party is whether it could shuck off its weaknesses.

Farage’s central political success has been in drawing on the support of people who have the same attitudinal profile as those who vote for explicitly racist parties like the BNP but who are turned off by the explicitly racist messaging of the BNP – and the increasingly explicit message of Gerard Batten’s Ukip.

But his limitation has always been in breaking out of that 15-20 per cent zone, outside of second-order elections like the European Parliament. That’s for two reasons: firstly, that lack of organisational know-how that has seen the party repeatedly outmatched by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party. I’m told that precious few of the 21 per cent of voters who backed the third-placed Tories did so on the day, attesting to the value of postal votes to well-organised and disciplined parties.

That, as Ukip did after its other by-election reverses, the Brexit Party prefers to indulge in dog-whistle complaints indicates that it is unlikely to ever really put in the effort necessary to make a great leap forward organisationally. This is added to the fact that its unique structure, while allowing Farage the freedom to make the strategic decisions he wants, also inhibits its hopes of equalling the other parties on the ground.

The second reason, however, is that Farage has never quite managed to expunge the Ukip taint as far as the wider electorate is concerned. The Brexit Party could have been an opportunity to do that – the symbolism of literally abandoning the old party because of its turn towards explicit Islamophobic sentiment was a gift for Farage, and one eaten up by large swathes of the press.

But that in defeat his new party cannot avoid reaching for a dog whistle means that it is likely destined to remain a sectional party – one that can only prevail if politics fragments to the point that a motivated quarter of the general electorate is enough to win seats and power.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.