UKIP leader Paul Nuttall’s loss to a decrepit Labour Party in the Stoke Central by-election last month merely confirmed what has long been evident: UKIP is a fading political force.
It’s now clear that the vote to leave the EU last June – a vote, in effect, for UK independence – did not equate to any increase in public enthusiasm for the actual, self-titled UK Independence Party. Polls suggest that UKIP’s support is at best flatlining at about 13 per cent, which is about the same as it was two years ago, when it picked up nearly four million votes, but just one seat, at the General Election.
Donation levels tell a similar story. Between October and December last year, a period during which the vote to leave the EU was being publicly challenged by politicians, business people and much of the media, you might have expected quite a few Leavers to put their money where UKIP’s mouth is. After all, it is seen, by commissioning editors at least, as the most vocal defender of the Brexit vote, the most strident opponent of the EU, the most striking coalescence of anti-establishment sentiment. Yet, while the Tories raked in £3.5million, and the Lib Dems and Labour a couple of million each, UKIP pulled in a paltry £33,228. That’s just £3,000 more than the mighty Women’s Equality Party, and less than both the irrelevant Green Party (£46,228) and Co-operative Party (£39,750). Although donations partly reflect the affluence of parties’ respective support bases, UKIP’s poverty still tells us something significant: the 17.4million who voted to leave the EU last June are clearly not rallying behind UKIP, even when the vote to leave is being challenged by a still ruling elite.
UKIP’s leading figures know this: they know they are not a coming force; they know that the Brexit vote has not translated into any upsurge in support for their party. The party’s a ‘mess’ said Nuttall at the weekend. Hence the near constant infighting, leadership churn and perpetual thrashing around for a future direction, a programme, even a new organisational form. Ex-leader and would-be knight Nigel Farage wants it to adopt a more radical anti-immigrant platform; his nemesis and sole UKIP MP, former and future Tory Douglas Carswell, wants a softer, more immigrant-friendly UKIP. And UKIP’s financial raison d’être Arron Banks is contemplating turning UKIP into some sort of Anglified Five Star Movement, complete with a new set of pick’n'mix policies, from the renationalisation of certain public utilities to the abolition of the House of Lords. This is not a party building on a success – it’s a party disintegrating in the midst of failure.
Not that you would necessarily know this given the focus on UKIP in much of the media and among the political class. They portray UKIP as a still significant force, a dangerous enemy to be combatted, an electoral phenomenon to be defeated. Why is this happening? Why is UKIP, which is clearly a party in disarray, indeed a party in little but name only given its internal dysfunction, being treated as something more important and meaningful than it now is? Because UKIP serves a function for those opposed to Brexit: it functions as the official voice of Brexit. Not because it is, but because they want it to be. They want UKIP, in all its purple-hued incompetence, to be their opponent, the Brexit they can beat, caricature, mock. So to unmask UKIP’s ‘ugly agenda’, to condemn it to the fringes of political life, is a means, at some level, to defeat Brexit, to delegitimise and demonise Leave voters, and to shore up the political establishment.