Is Ukip back from the dead?

Since Chequers the party has undergone something of a revival. The question is whether it will last

August 11, 2018
Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Archive/PA Images
Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Archive/PA Images

Just as it was becoming commonplace to predict the final demise of Ukip, Theresa May’s Chequers deal breathed new life into the party. Having spent most of 2018 flatlining at 3 per cent in the polls, Ukip’s rating increased to 7 per cent after the prime minister’s announcement of her Brexit plans and the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson. The fear of many hard-Brexit Conservatives is that any final deal that looked like Chequers—or involved even more concessions to the European Union—would cause further voter defections. So, is Ukip back from the dead?

Following the exit of Nigel Farage after the referendum, Ukip went through rather a turbulent period. One leader, Diane James, resigned after 18 days. Her replacement, Paul Nuttall, was ridiculed in the press as a Walter Mitty character. He stood down after Ukip’s support slumped to just 2 per cent in the 2017 election, down from 13 per cent in 2015.

Next came Henry Bolton, whose sole impact was to provide fodder for the tabloids after news broke of his affair with a glamourous young activist less than half his age, but who was revealed to have made racially charged comments about Meghan Markle. It culminated in the public breakdown of Bolton’s marriage and his ejection from the leadership in a no-confidence vote. His replacement, Gerard Batten, then oversaw the loss of almost all of the council seats Ukip was defending in the 2018 local elections. With most voters laughing at the party, Ukip was waiting to be put out of its misery.

And then came Chequers. May’s attempt to find a plan for Brexit alienated a section of Conservative voters who had voted “Leave." They began switching their support to Ukip.

Ukip has never been seen by voters as a serious party of government. It is a protest party, which explains why its support can surge and collapse quite quickly. When voters have something to protest about in relation to the two main parties, they can switch their support to it. That is especially likely when the party emphasises issues where the main parties are underperforming. Once those issues are addressed, the protest party falls back.

That is precisely what happened to Ukip. It initially attracted voters alienated by the modernisation of Labour and the Conservatives, boosted by negative feelings towards the EU and immigration. Once the country voted for Brexit, the party’s support evaporated. The hostility of some voters towards Chequers has given it new life because there is once again something to protest about.

That would suggest that Ukip may well fall back if and when Brexit is resolved. However, the party will have taken encouragement from a recent YouGov poll. The survey found that on the positions Ukip emphasises, a high proportion of voters believe none of the major parties represents their views. These included:

- “the justice system is not harsh enough” (24 per cent of voters held this view  and thought it was not represented by the main parties) - “immigration restrictions should be tighter” (16 per cent) - “Britain should not militarily intervene in other countries” (13 per cent) - “government should regulate big business more” (12 per cent) - “the benefits system is too generous” (12 per cent)

Ukip’s socially conservative stance easily incorporates the first, second and fifth positions, but also the third (it has opposed British intervention in the Middle East). Even an anti-big-business stance sits easily with the party’s Poujadist prejudices. What is more, those who voted “Leave” were much more likely than Remainers to believe their preferences were ignored by the main parties. These findings should be manna from heaven for Ukip.

In reality, Ukip is never likely to be more than a protest party. That fact shouldn’t be dismissed as unimportant. Conservatives worry that leaking support to Ukip will lead to the loss of marginal seats to Labour, possibly putting Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. It was precisely this “blackmail” threat that led David Cameron to concede the offer of the referendum. But Ukip has only ever won one seat in a general election and the electoral system would most likely prevent it from improving on that. Similar problems would confront any new movement formed by Farage (as is occasionally mooted).

The five positions identified in YouGov’s poll are, however, ones that could play well with a section of Labour supporters, especially the one third that voted “Leave” in 2016. Some commentators previously speculated that Ukip could target safe Labour constituencies in the north of England, given that they are populated with white, working-class “left-behind” voters that formed the bedrock of Ukip support. But it did not happen in 2017 and it is unlikely to happen now.

The only way Labour could be threatened in its safe seats would be if a party emerged to challenge it on the left of the political spectrum, thereby eating its electoral lunch, rather than competing from the right as Ukip does. After all, these seats are ideologically skewed to the left—that is what makes them safe for Labour.

Contrary to excited commentary about a new pro-Remain centrist party, a better chance could exist for a party that was economically left-wing but socially conservative and patriotic, a Frank Field-type “English Labour.” It could appeal to Labour Leavers in the party’s Northern heartlands and would tick all five of the issue positions in YouGov’s poll. If it were formed, it could split Labour’s current electoral coalition of metropolitan supporters (liberal professionals, students and ethnic minorities) and the northern working class. But as things stand, such a party is not on the agenda.

As for Ukip, Chequers may have given it hope but its internal problems remain and without Farage at the helm, it lacks a charismatic and effective spokesman. The best it can achieve is to pull the Conservatives closer to a hard Brexit by threatening to detach some of their support—the traditional province of the protest party. Given its founding aim of taking Britain out of the EU, that may well be enough.