For the second time in three months, UKIP have elected a leader to fill the void left by Nigel Farage. Love him or hate him, his populist appeal was undeniable and it falls to his deputy of six years, Paul Nuttall, to build upon his success. His leadership campaign focused on unity and the largest mandate in the party’s history, 62.6% of the vote, should provide him with the necessary leverage to redefine the UKIP project.
Despite achieving its fundamental political objective on the 23rd June, UKIP has looked less united then ever. Diane James resigned after just 18 days as leader, its membership has been falling and there has been political infighting between its MEPs. This has constituted an existential crisis for a party with just 1 Member of Parliament and raises the question; can they still be a relevant force in post-referendum Britain?
Although the referendum has been been won, the Brexit process is yet to begin and calls for a second referendum and a re-evaluation of leaving the single market have created uncertainty. Theresa May’s leadership has been ambiguous on the detail and UKIP could potentially provide a voice for the 52% who voted leave in June. Nuttall has pledged to “hold the government’s feet to the fire on Brexit” which is to say UKIP will exert pressure on Mrs May to deliver a clear exit from the EU. Should the terms of the Conservatives’ negotiations be unsatisfactory or the exit be delayed beyond 2020, UKIP would likely gain from being the only party committed to delivering the referendum verdict.
The new UKIP leader can take encouragement from the anti-establishment phenomenon that has swept across Europe and the US, from Brexit to Donald Trump’s stunning victory in November. People feel disenfranchised by a global, liberal elite and this has been represented at the ballot box. Nuttall’s claim to “speak the language of ordinary working people” is a pointed attack on the Labour party, who he says have “neglected” their traditional base of support and lost touch with the doorstep concerns of working class Britain.
Immigration, crime, defence and foreign aid are the issues Paul Nuttall believes most important in order to directly challenge Labour’s traditional dominance in the north and the midlands. His policies are simple but they resonate with many of the disaffected working class. Having achieved 4 million votes in 2015, UKIP has a popular base of support. However Douglas Carswell remains their only MP, and his party loyalty has regularly been questioned. Recognising this, Mr Nuttall has pledged to concentrate on boosting electoral returns by ending the “scatter gun approach” of the 2015 election and has targeted double figures in the Commons. In addition he hopes to make membership cheaper and more appealing to the working class, with a target of 100,000 registered party supporters.
Over the next few weeks, we will get a clearer picture of Nuttall’s vision for UKIP and his first task will be to heal the many divisions within his party. He will undoubtedly push for a hard Brexit, stating in no uncertain terms that “if you’re a remainer… we’re coming after you” and aimed at the MPs believed to be considering blocking Brexit negotiations. UKIP is in crisis and its fortunes will not change overnight, but Nuttall has strong leadership credentials and his election will likely be welcomed by supporters and colleagues alike.
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