This election could see the end of the UKIP leaderby Katharine Quarmby / May 2, 2017 / Leave a comment
Can Paul Nuttall, the UKIP leader, win the seat of Boston and Skegness from the Conservatives? Bafflingly, Nuttall announced he was standing during a visit to Hartlepool, about 160 miles away from the constituency. His rally was interrupted by a street fight that may or may not have had its basis in Brexit, depending on which paper you read.
On the face of it, Nuttall should stand a chance. The Lincolnshire town of Boston voted 75.6 per cent in favour of leaving the European Union, the highest proportion in the country. Its incumbent MP, Matt Warman, campaigned in favour of Remain and has defended the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and therefore could be vulnerable. His majority in the last general election was 10 per cent above that of second-placed UKIP, but UKIP’s share of the vote climbed over 24 percentage points between 2010 and 2015.
According to the last census, Boston’s population increased by 15.9 per cent between 2000 and 2011, a rate double the national average. The town is home to the highest proportion of European immigrants of anywhere in England and Wales (mostly from Eastern Europe, and including many Roma). The unemployment rate is still relatively low, with most migrants employed in agriculture. But there is well-reported resentment about the rate of change, with some residents complaining about the effects on public services.
UKIP is upbeat at its prospects, with Nuttall vowing “make it my mission to stand up for the people of Boston and Skegness.” Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent and co-author of Revolt on the Right, says of Nuttall: “He will throw everything into the election campaign and is clearly aware of the need to deliver a strong UKIP vote. If he fails then UKIP will be written off in the shade of the general election.”
However, Nuttall’s political record is patchy. As an MEP for North West England, he has one of the worst attendance records—rivalled only by Nigel Farage (from whom he took over as UKIP leader in November) and a disabled Irish MEP, who is unable to travel. The European Parliament is investigating Nuttall, Farage and six other UKIP MEPs for alleged misuse of funds. In February, his attempt to win the seat of Stoke-on-Trent from Labour in a byelection ended in defeat.
During that campaign, Nuttall gave a home address in the constituency which turned out to be empty. He has had to retract or clarify a number of statements, including that he lost “close friends” in the Hillsborough disaster, that he played professional football and that he has a PhD. He also has a habit of blaming other people for the false claims that cluster around his reputation. Perhaps in an attempt to look all-English, he likes to dress in tweed.
His record may be chequered, but he is hoping that voters will plump for UKIP’s unique selling point: a kind of pugnacious Englishness. In some quarters, this has come to represent national identity, rather than Britain’s other vaunted reputation for tolerance. In both Nuttall and Farage, this is blended with a desire to tilt at windmills. Banning the burqa in public, anyone, in spite of the fact that few women wear them in Britain?
Nuttall’s personal attributes are only part of a larger story—of the UKIP collapse post-Brexit, as the Conservatives coast towards a comfortable majority. Goodwin points out that although UKIP’s past results, it is “unlikely, but not impossible, that Paul Nuttall will be able to capture this seat at the general election in June… We estimate that around one in three of UKIP’s 2015 voters is moving over to the Conservative party.”
Discussion of the new right often leads to the quotation of GK Chesterton’s 1907 poem, ‘The Secret People’: “we are the people of England that never have spoken yet.” Yet Chesterton also warned about the dangers of fascism, of the “poison of eugenics” and he satirised middle England as much as he celebrated it. Chesterton was too honest a writer to believe his own brand of nostalgia.
Sadly, this self-awareness is not always true of the UKIP elite, those grumpy middle-aged white men, who refuse to accept that isolationism is over and globalisation is here to stay. Their ragbag of policies collapse under scrutiny—Nuttall has already backtracked on his suggestion that Muslim girls at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) be physically examined. FGM is already an offence and schools already have a duty to safeguard against it. Indeed, UKIP would do well to rein back its unhealthy interest in policing the body parts of Muslim women.
Many Leave voters in Boston and Skegness must acknowledge that without migrants the peas would not be picked and the flowers not sent to New Covent Garden Market. Many of them know that migrants live in poor housing and are often exploited by employers, driving down wages for all. Some of them know that the Roma are fleeing what can only be described as persecution in some Eastern European countries. But managing the costs and benefits of migration is the stuff of real politics—not the stuff of the UKIP leadership, who prefer squabbling and whingeing at other EU countries in what appears more like a neighbourhood dispute about leylandii than a serious discussion about policy.
So Nuttall will probably lose again and perhaps even exit national politics. It is to Matt Warman’s credit that he is defending the centre ground in his constituency and all those that live there. His attitude stands in some contrast both to UKIP and to the Conservative high command, which to regain voters has also exploited rightful fears about public services to scapegoat migrants, while using the electoral system to squash all dissent.