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Down but not out: diagnosing UKIP's biggest problems
UKIP seems to have lurched from crisis to crisis since achieving its founding ambition – to take the UK out of the European Union. However, UKIP still has noteworthy support. It might be down, but it certainly isn’t out.
The first and most obvious setback for UKIP was the loss of its charismatic leader, Nigel Farage. Paul Nuttall, his replacement, has been accused of being a fantasist by many of his opponents. Either way, he is widely thought of as having failed his first big test as leader by losing a by-election in Stoke following the resignation of Labour MP Tristram Hunt.
Nuttall unwisely raised excessive expectations about winning the contest, and when that win failed to materialise he and his party looked like bigger losers than they were in reality. A win in the by-election would have confirmed the wisdom of his strategy to pursue Labour in its heartland.
Instead, the Stoke failure produced a lot of negative news coverage to the effect that it was all over for the party.
In truth, the anti-Labour strategy was always much riskier than it appeared. UKIP hoped to appeal to Labour voters who had deserted their party to support Brexit in the June referendum. But those voters couldn’t be relied upon.
A little known fact of the 2015 general election was that while a UKIP intervention in a constituency had the effect of reducing the Conservative vote share across the country, it actually served to increase the Labour vote share. This was because UKIP took more votes away from parties other than Labour – notably the Conservatives.
Winning to losing
The party also faces the “winners curse” after backing the Leave side in the referendum campaign. This has greatly reduced the political impact of the one issue that UKIP very much owned in the minds of the voters. The electorate is no longer focusing on whether the UK should leave the EU, but rather how it should leave.
Although Nuttall has argued that the party will act as the “watchdog” of Brexit, this claim has been weakened by the fact that Theresa May appears to be heading for a hard Brexit – outside of the single market and the customs union.
The average voter would find it difficult to identify a distinctive UKIP issue which has not been adopted by May and the Conservatives already. The slogan “take back control” – used to great effect in the referendum campaign – is much more potent than “UKIP will keep an eye on the government”.
UKIP has also lost its status of being the clear “none of the above” choice for voters who are disgruntled with the performance of the three major parties. It had this status when the Liberal Democrats were in government during the coalition years, but now that the latter party has gone into opposition it is once again attracting disgruntled floating voters, but also “Remoaners” who do not accept the decision of the referendum.
UKIP therefore faces a new competitor, since the Liberal Democrats were only 1% behind the party in voting intentions in a YouGov poll conducted on March 8 and 9 this year.
On top of all this, UKIP has been racked with infighting among its leadership. This was evident when Farage and the millionaire UKIP donor Arron Banks called for the party’s sole representative in the House of Commons, Douglas Carswell, to be sacked from the party. Banks even went as far as to say that he would run against Carswell in the 2020 general election in his Clacton constituency if Carswell did not step down.
Potential future opportunities
After all these problems, it is really a remarkable achievement that the party obtained 11% of voting intentions in the YouGov poll referred to earlier. This is only slightly down on the 12.6% vote share the party won in the 2015 general election.
This result is a product of the fact that there is still a wave of right-wing populism growing across Europe and in the United States which underpins support for UKIP. This wave of support is based on a syndrome of economic grievances, socio-cultural threats and political distrust with establishment parties.
Since it was founded in 1993, UKIP has portrayed itself as a “common-sense” party that champions the interests of ordinary people —- interests that it claims are subverted by a cartel of unresponsive cultural, economic and political elites. Those grievances have not yet gone away and if a hard Brexit helps to precipitate another recession then they will be a potent source support for the party in the future. UKIP may continue to have support, either in its present form or in the form of a newly rebranded radical right party.
Paul Whiteley receives funding from the ESRC.