Where next for Farage?
It is clear that Ukip has no future beyond that of a protest party, writes Peter Manson
The September 16-17 conference of the UK Independence Party formally saw a change of leadership, with Nigel Farage stepping down in favour of Diane James. The MEP for South-East England was elected with 47.4% of the vote (ie, 8,451 Ukip members), with her nearest challenger on 25.7%. I say ‘formally’, of course, because Farage had long made it clear he was calling it a day.
It seems, however, that James has neither the talent nor charisma of her predecessor and it was clear that Farage was still the star of the show, with the Ukip faithful giving him a rapturous farewell ovation. For her part, James claimed that Ukip is now the “opposition party in waiting”. With Labour in disarray and uncertainty over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, it is true that despite the Brexit vote Ukip’s poll ratings have held up reasonably well. Nevertheless, her assertion is clearly nonsense. Posing a rightwing challenge to the Tories is one thing, but actually replacing Labour - despite its current desperate state - as Britain’s main opposition party is quite another.
Someone ought to remind James that in Britain we have an election system based on ‘first past the post’ - which means that there is a constant pull towards the two established parties and it is almost impossible for a newcomer to break through permanently - not least if it is perceived, as in the case of Ukip, as merely a more rightwing version of the Conservatives.
Then there is the small matter of the new party’s programme. Posing as an anti-establishment force and adopting a series of right-populist slogans is insufficient. We all know that Ukip demands that Britain leave the European Union and wants tight controls on immigration, but apart from that ... It is true that, the longer the current impasse over Brexit drags on, the more Ukip is likely to pick up in the short term - indeed, as this paper has frequently pointed out, it is by no means certain that the UK will actually leave the EU.
But, despite Farage’s efforts to appeal to Labour voters, Ukip’s main source of support tends to come from former Tory-voting members of the working class, the less educated section of the middle class and the older and more desperate end of the petty bourgeoisie - Theresa May’s natural base. Which means that, even if you imagine a catastrophic Labour split and two rival versions contesting under the Labour name, a big increase in Ukip votes would probably impact mainly on the Tories - and perhaps allow even a much weakened Labour Party to sneak home in some marginal seats. Farage has stated that he does not think that the “harvest of votes” Ukip can win from Labour “has really started yet” - this is surely wishful thinking.
In other words, Ukip cannot really expect ever to emerge from its ‘protest vote’ niche. Even if it developed a fully formed programme, it would still be a poor man’s version of the Tory Party - which will clearly still be around when Nigel Farage, and most probably Ukip itself, have long been forgotten.
According to the Socialist Workers Party leader, Alex Callinicos, Theresa May’s party is in deep trouble: “… the fact remains that she faces the most titanic political struggle, as she balances between the pressures from the British and global ruling classes and from her own right wing.” Writing in last week’s Socialist Worker, comrade Callinicos stated that “the whole business” of the controversy following May’s proposals for a major reintroduction of grammar schools “confirms what a chaotic state the Tories are in”. His article was headed: “Divisions over grammar schools show splits in the Tory Party.”1
In fact, right now Ukip looks far more likely to split than the Tories, with prolonged infighting dogging the party, particularly in Wales. One of Diane James’s first acts following her confirmation as leader was to remove from the following day’s platform former controversial Tory MP and now Ukip Welsh assembly member Neil Hamilton. No doubt through such authoritative action she was emulating one of her “heroes”, Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom she admires because he is a “strong leader”, as well as being “very nationalist” (her other “heroes” are Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher).
But James is keen to build bridges with Douglas Carswell - Ukip’s only MP by virtue of his defection from the Tories two years ago and subsequent victory in the same parliamentary seat of Clacton in the by-election triggered by his switch of parties. Farage has been piling insult upon insult on Carswell, claiming that some “quite big surgery” was needed and Ukip would be “better off” if he left the party. For his part, Carswell has rather absurdly claimed that Farage’s political errors cost Ukip “as many as 11 seats” in the 2015 general election.
In a sense, it is hardly surprising that Farage appears to have given up on Ukip, even though he insists that he is “not walking away from politics”. Rather, he is “walking away from party politics”. However, he immediately contradicted himself by stating that he was “considering a return to a major national political role at the next general election” - in fact he may well “stand as an MP” in 2020. Surely not as an independent?
It could be that Farage has finally recognised that Ukip is going nowhere. While he says he will remain a member, he will first and foremost be working in the ‘Leave.EU’ campaign. He told the conference in his parting speech: “I’m going to engage in political life without leading a political party and it’s going to leave me freer, less constrained. From now on I’m really going to speak my mind.”2
In other words, he will be seeking lots of self-publicity - building up as much support as he can for … himself. He is about to go on a tour of European capitals “to try to help independence and democracy movements in those countries”. Then early next year he is planning a speaking tour across Britain.
It is unclear what he thinks the future holds for him. He obviously still views himself as a political leader, but in what precise form?
1. Socialist Worker September 13.
2. The Daily Telegraph September 16.