I’ll admit, that if you’re going to come and claim something as the biggest political news of the past week, you’ve got a bit of competition. But I have a sneaking suspicion that, with hindsight, the decision of Nigel Farage to step down as UKIP leader (properly, this time) could end up as the most important.
As predictions go, this may sound a little eccentric; and you may require a little convincing to make you think me borderline sane.
For a long time now, UKIP has been the dog that didn’t bark of British politics. Set aside the Leave vote for a moment (where UKIP were treated as a hindrance more than an asset); for twenty years, UKIP has been a party banging its head against a brick wall. At the last general election they managed to pick up almost 13% of the vote, but lost half of their seats. For years, people have predicted UKIP as a major force in the future of British politics, but time after time it fails to turn up.
This is a double puzzle to me. First off, people are fed up with politics. That seems to be a general consensus that Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems are all led by besuited Oxbridge graduates who get into public life with the intention of fiddling their expenses. Setting aside the fact that UKIP MEPs mostly are suit-wearing ex-bankers who treat their expense accounts like an EU-funded research programme into cutting edge accountancy fraud, the fact is that they successfully sell themselves as representatives of ordinary people. If you want to protest against the system, they’re ready and waiting for you.
Second, if you share my belief that the politics of the 21st century is likely to be as much about the case for or against globalisation, UKIP are the only party able to stand firmly on the side of stopping the multinational whirl. For people who experience globalisation as unemployment and marginalisation, UKIP should be the natural party that they vote for.
So why has the story of UKIP been one of such failure? Well, I think it’s obvious…
Nigel Farage is a lousy politician. I don’t say that just because he’s widely loathed by the chattering classes – indeed this was in some ways his greatest/only political asset. But he is outright dreadful at the things that politicians need to be good at if they are to build a serious political party.
- He was no good at political tactics. When he ran for Parliament in 2010, he thought the best thing he could do to engage with the voters in the final hours of the campaign was fly a plane 10,000 feet above their heads.
- He’s equally poor at strategy, having no sense of prioritising key seats or important areas. UKIP’s successes, such as Rotherham or Heywood and Middleton, tend to be locally led.
- He can’t build a coalition – he’s managed to trigger parliamentary rebellions in a party with only one MP; and the party’s national executive is about as fissiparous as a debating society made out of student poets.
His one strength has been getting the TV cameras to look at Nigel Farage; and he’s never seemed to wonder whether there’s anything more to UKIP’s success than that.
As a result, UKIP has never built a party capable of winning in the British political system. It hasn’t even needed tactical voting to keep them out – as the losses at the last election in Thanet South and Castle Point, where the Tory and Labour votes were dead-split, went to show. Instead, they flutter round the margins in proportional representation systems like the Welsh Assembly elections, which are purposefully designed to make sure that all have prizes.
All of which has obscured the fact that UKIP is standing in front of the biggest open goal in British politics. There are seats in the north of England that have voted for Labour every election since the General Strike. They have continued doing this, particularly over the past twenty years, even as the party has become more and more in the sway of metropolitan leftist cliques. Blair, Miliband and now Corbyn have only served to make that alienation worse. The only thing lower than their turnout is their Guardian readership; and last month they voted heavily in favour of Leave.
Right now, there isn’t really an opposition party in England’s northern cities. The Lib Dems were close to becoming one, taking control of serious councils and some hard industrial seats like Redcar. All that disappeared when Clegg signed up for the coalition, and (in net terms) UKIP picked up the voters. With a bit of focused effort, there are a great many seats that could be terribly vulnerable.
This may sound far-fetched. Labour still gets more than 50% of the vote in many of its northern constituencies. But the same was true in many Scottish seats as recently as 2010 – and all but one of them turned SNP-yellow on election night. That all took place on the back of a referendum where many thousands of voters suddenly rethought their traditional allegiance, and wondered whether their interests were best served by continuing voting the way their great-grandparents had.
When Red Clydeside switched to the SNP, the Labour Party arguably lost the chance of ever being in majority government again. If UKIP pulls the same trick in Tyneside, in Yorkshire and in Lancs, then the Labour Party is as dead as the Liberals of Lloyd George. This fact isn’t lost on Labour – this is why the efforts to remove Corbyn are as fierce and universal as they are.
There have long been plenty of push factors to stop people voting Labour in these areas. But a new UKIP leader might, for the first time, figure out a way to pull them in.
And if that happens, then we have a real revolution on our hands – a genuine populist, anti-establishment political party, as troubling to the status quo as Labour was a century and a half before. Compared to that, the choice of the next Prime Minister is a trivial thing.