Ever since the Brexit vote on 23 June (and the resignation of their charismatic leader Nigel Farage immediately afterwards) UKIP has been reeling from one crisis after another. Following the possible fist-fight between two UKIP MEPs in Strasbourg last week, the media has now almost unanimously written the party off. Yet this is the party that won the European elections in 2014, the first other than Labour or the Conservatives to win a nation-wide poll in living memory, and was the only party to back the winning side in the EU referendum. Could it be that the political force so intent on upsetting the establishment might collapse in the wake of its greatest triumph?
Here are 5 problems UKIP must solve immediately in order to avoid being swept into the dustbin of history:
- The post-Farage hangover: Outside political movements, as UKIP was for much of its history, tend to be ignored by the media without a charismatic figure at the top. Nigel Farage wasn’t charismatic in the sense that he attracted widespread admiration – he has been more reviled than loved arguably – but he was always interesting, and always good on camera. Almost despite themselves, the media would give UKIP airtime just to hear what Farage had to say. Without Farage, UKIP lacks not only a charismatic man at the top, but a recognisable identity in the media. It’s a tall order, but UKIP desperately need someone with the ability to put his or her own stamp on the party and make it their own – and fast!
- Better to be hated than ridiculed: UKIP has been stealing votes away from Labour and the Tories for many years now, becoming the bogey man in UK politics. The party has always had a lot of detractors, but at least they gained a bit of grudging success for knowing the minds of British voters better than the established parties do. Now that Diane James has resigned 18 days after being elected leader, and MEPs Steven Woolfe and Mike Hookem appear to have been in a punch-up at the EU Parliament, the party is being openly laughed at. Once the UKIP rank-and-file start to lose pride in the party, UKIPs days as a viable political force are numbered.
- Theresa May: She may be a Tory prime minister, but Theresa May has had no qualms about parking her tanks squarely on the UKIP lawn. Not only has she somehow transformed herself from luke-warm Remain supporter into Brexiteer-in-chief, but Mrs May is also squatting on one of UKIP’s main domestic policies – the reintroduction of grammar schools. May has risen to power without having to take many clear positions on matters of principle, and this has allowed her to stake out UKIP territory without appearing hypocritical to the public. And worse for UKIP, there’s even a possibility that May’s pseudo-UKIP stances may actually be genuinely heartfelt.
- Loss of uniqueness: Leaving the EU was not just UKIP’s raison d’être, it was also their ‘unique selling point’ that made the party stand out. Before 23 June 2016 UKIP were the only party dedicated to leaving the EU. Now, not only is that question no longer one that needs resolving, but the Conservatives have become the most prominent Brexit party to boot. This matters when it comes to getting media airtime. A year ago if the BBC wanted to discuss EU membership, UKIP was the only party that would come on air to argue leaving. Now there are a host of Tory ‘big beasts’ who can do the job, and do it much better than any of Farage’s possible replacements as well. It’s painful realisation for the party to face up to, but the media no longer needs UKIP.
- Lack of ideology: It would be unfair to say that UKIP are a single-issue party. They’ve worked hard to put together positions on a range of issues. The problem is most voters are attracted to UKIP because it allows voters to cock a snook at the establishment. An effective way to get votes, but protest is an emotional response, not an ideology. Without a clear, distinctive ideology the UKIP platform is just a series of angry, populist one-issue causes. This makes their policies ripe for the other parties to poach when it suits them (see number 3 above). And the anger of UKIP voters will eventually dissipate. Without a coherent set of principles that extend beyond anger and patriotism, UKIP will have no way to keep voters’ interest in the long-term.
Image by Gage Skidmore, used with permission under Creative Commons License.