Written by Political Strategy • Published 01st September 2016
By Simeon Goldstraw
Although Theresa May has now returned from Switzerland, presumably with a useful taster of how Britain might feel outside of the European Union, it is the schism within the Labour Party that continues to grasp the political headlines day after day. With the Labour leadership race dominating the political consensus during parliament’s summer break, you could be forgiven for forgetting that there are other leadership battles under way amongst Britain’s parliamentary parties.
Yet there are. The Green Party will announce its new leader (or leaders) at its party conference in Birmingham, with Caroline Lucas expected to return to the role, this time in coalition with Jonathan Bartley, whilst UKIP will swiftly follow suit, announcing its leader a fortnight tomorrow.
Arguably, UKIP’s leadership contest is as interesting as any this summer. Since taking over at the helm in 2009, Nigel Farage has defined the party, its message and its values. Under his leadership, the party earned its first ever MP, won the European Parliamentary elections in 2014, and became the third most-voted for party at the General Election last year. It also applied a hefty load of the political pressure which saw David Cameron first call for, then lose, the European Union referendum.
But in his own words, Farage now ‘wants his life back’, and UKIP must elect a new leader. The leadership contest was riddled with controversy before it even began. Party regulations stated that Douglas Carswell, the party’s only MP, would not be allowed to compete for the position, whilst the bookies’ favourite Steven Woolfe was also deprived of the right after submitting his application after the deadline.
Unusually by UKIP’s recent standards, since then it has managed to largely evade too much press attention. This media neglect may act as a tacit warning of the party’s future without Farage at its head: who the party elects as its next leader will face a steep challenge retaining the kind of attention Farage used to revel in. However, many are arguing that the new leader’s most important task is to make a decision about what kind of party UKIP will be in the future. It has campaigned throughout its lifespan for Britain to leave the European Union, and whilst it has not been a single-issue party for many years, it is that issue which has demarcated the party to many of its supporters.
The consensus is that the party faces a fork in the road. Does it look to broaden its appeal to either the left or right? Phillip Broughton, a former candidate for the party in the North East at European and General elections has centred his leadership bid on attracting traditional Labour voters. Broughton is advocating protection from the privatisation of the NHS and economic equality, with support for an Australian-based points system on migration and investment into the armed forces added to attract some of the party’s more typical membership.
The logic here is obvious. UKIP enjoyed electoral success in traditional Labour strongholds like the Valleys and Swansea at the Welsh assembly elections in May and followed that up with attracting a high degree of Vote Leave support in working-class areas like Middlesbrough and Doncaster during the EU referendum.
Alternatively, candidates including Bill Etheridge and Elizabeth Jones have emphasised that they see the party’s core electorate as being in the ‘shires’, the demographic which won over Tory defectors Carswell and Mark Reckless prior to the 2015 General Election. This would foresee UKIP following a more Thatcher-style ‘free market, strong state’ approach.
The experts suggest that Diane James, another candidate from the same school, is the clear favourite for the contest, despite offending the other candidates by refusing to partake in the leadership hustings during the past month. This should not, however, be surprising. James may be on the right of the party, but, she is more renowned as a good communicator and popular people person than she is for her economic liberalism.
In the past few years, UKIP has forged itself a USP within the English and Welsh political landscape very similar to that the SNP retains in Scotland. Presenting itself as the party of the people, it has managed to engage and motivate the apathetic. It has emerged as the voice of those left behind by globalisation, neoliberalism, and Britain’s traditional major parties.
These demographics stretch beyond conventional left and right binaries. Sunderland, a city made by its ship building and coal mining industries, traditionally a rigid Labour fortress, ignored the message of its party and voted to leave the EU 61 to 39. The area of Breckland voted to leave by a similar margin, but in stark contrast to Sunderland, its constituency of Mid-Norfolk has only ever elected a Conservative MP.
This emphasises UKIP’s appeal. Outside of Britain’s major cities such as London and Manchester, which magnetise foreign investment, young talent and outward thinking, there is an electorate that UKIP have been able to capture the imagination of with its down-to-earth rhetoric. Farage’s distinctive approach has engaged with people where Oxbridge graduates and the Guardian have been unable to.
Channelling its energy towards either the left or the right will only limit UKIP’s appeal. A policy spearheaded on investment in public services cannot continue to attract the voters in Breckland, similarly, a more explicit support for the freedom of the market will struggle to convert those in Sunderland during the long term.
Naturally, there are those that argue UKIP must choose: Margot Parker, MEP for UKIP and Peter Whittle, London AM, have both argued in the aftermath of the referendum that UKIP must look to traditional Labour areas for its futures. But, the diversity in the party’s own leadership contest highlights how it has captured the imagination of people from across the political scale. Outside of the UK’s big cities, UKIP is as close to the catch-all party as any of its rivals.
Thus, the UKIP membership looks remarkably ordinary after all, the party’s leadership race will not be a case of which way it chooses, but simply who it chooses. Without the charisma of Carswell or Woolfe, the party has little choice but to turn Diane James. There is an air of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon about Farage and James. Farage has backed James for the post like Salmond did Sturgeon, and like Sturgeon, James has a steely, resilient approach which may prosper at the top of what is traditionally a men’s party. The influence of a woman at the head of UKIP should not be overlooked, much the same as the SNP, the party has found it easier to attract men than women in the past.
— Diane James MEP (@DianeJamesMEP) August 30, 2016
The challenge for James, a former Conservative supporter moulded during the Thatcher years, will be resisting some of her instincts. For all of the pints poured and cigarettes smoked, that was Farage’s greatest strength; his message retained its focus on those UKIP appealed to. In the background, Farage may have been an advocate for low taxation and small government, but that message never conveyed itself vehemently enough to deter those from working-class areas.
UKIP’s discourse must be far simpler, the party of the people, regardless of its leader.