With the departure of Nigel Farage and its raison d’être finally achieved, Ukip seems unsure of what to do next. As the party’s factions vie for power, the question remains: what will become of Ukip under Diane James, and is the party viable in a post-Brexit Britain?
After 25 years of hard slog, Ukip and Nigel Farage have helped engineer a full scale political earthquake, winning a referendum on arguably the biggest decision for the nation since Suez. Farage’s self-anointed “people’s army” has certainly come a long way from humble beginnings, having only entered the public consciousness in the last few years.
Indeed, the fact that David Cameron’s premiership was ended by those whom he disparaged as “loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists” in 2006 is a sort of poetic justice in itself. Just over a decade later, Farage has delivered the shock that he had long been predicting, winning the referendum by a majority of over 1.3 million people; a result that reverberated around Westminster, Brussels and Washington. This seals his legacy as the most pivotal British politician since Margaret Thatcher, having delivered the radical and permanent policy change of Brexit, despite never making it into the House of Commons.
Nevertheless, Ukip’s future path is a difficult one, even with the election of the new leader, Diane James. The party has long received criticism for being a one-man band and for its signature bouts of infighting and rivalries whenever they are in danger of succeeding. Even in the referendum, the seminal moment of Ukip’s history, Farage and Douglas Carswell, the party’s only MP, could not work together and went on to back rival “Leave” campaigns. Farage himself backed the Leave.EU campaign, funded by the millionaire donor Arron Banks who has labelled Carswell “borderline autistic”.
Even those who the public were beginning to recognise, such as Steven Woolfe and Suzanne Evans, claim they have been tripped up or fallen foul of one of Ukip’s many factions and prevented from standing, with Evans suspended for “disloyalty”. Whatever the truth in this explanation, members were left with a leadership race with most of the party’s major players absent and the remaining candidates largely absent from the public imagination.
So what next for Ukip? James has been elected leader of the party by a clear margin, giving Ukip a competent but largely unknown and occasionally gaffe-prone leader. Had the working class, mixed race, Moss Side boy Steven Woolfe been in the running, northern Labour should have been quaking in their boots. A savvy media performer, seemingly down-to-earth and of humble, northern origins, Woolfe would likely have won seats against the flimsy leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, Ukip is everything Corbyn is not: pro-military, anti-uncontrolled immigration and unashamedly patriotic, and thus would have easily mopped up the old Labour vote in seats where the Conservatives wouldn’t have stood a chance of winning.
Instead, James is an MEP for south-east England and arguably holds less appeal for these ex-Labour voters as yet another ex-Conservative but without Farage’s everyman appeal. Even assuming she has the charisma and political skill to push Ukip to the forefront of the voters’ imaginations, we have to ask: just who is Ukip’s target voter anymore?
Only a year ago the party was sure of its direction, its aims and its policies. To achieve Brexit, reduce immigration, get grammar school expansion and a new, more sceptical approach to international aid, you had to vote Ukip. David Cameron’s brand of flabby centrism had not cut through to Ukip’s core vote, with most of these people suspicious of the man himself since his failure to honour the “cast iron guarantee” of a Lisbon Treaty referendum. Now, Theresa May offers a new and radical brand of conservatism, appealing to the sensibilities of many of the people who abandoned her party under its previous leadership.
It is clear that some Ukip sympathising ex-Conservatives will now flow back to the Conservative Party, with Mrs May promising to deliver many of their key demands including Brexit and the expansion of grammar schools. Moreover, without some large scale political promise breaking from the prime minister this is likely to be how it will stay.
These are not the only problems Ukip faces. Beneath the party’s unifying belief of euroscepticism and with Farage gone the party is riven with ideological differences. James must work hard to unite the libertarians, social conservatives and economically left-wing eurosceptics who jostle for position in Ukip’s leadership, often publicly clashing over policy as well as tone.
James herself must find a way to make herself known across the country otherwise she will find it hard to broaden Ukip’s appeal from its core vote. The Liberal Democrats are a prime example of a party treading water with a largely unknown leader, so Ukip must avoid this at all costs if it wishes to win parliamentary seats in 2020.
The party faces a choice: having squeezed all the votes it can out of disillusioned ex-Conservatives, their main target voter is now ex-Labour voters, often critical of multiculturalism and immigration. Certainly, a possible course of action for James is a rebrand and reorganisation in an effort to shake off the party’s rather fusty, golf club image and appeal to more centre ground voters. However, with May’s brand of conservatism offering highly popular policies such as the lifting of the grammar school ban, these centrist voters seem unlikely to switch to Ukip.
With the departure of Farage, the party seems rudderless. As its policies and voters are swallowed up by May’s Conservatives veering right, Ukip must evolve or die in order to remain politically relevant. No political party has any God-given right to exist.
With Brexit now under way the party must professionalise and unite around James if they are to have any hope of presenting cohesive policies whilst also differentiating themselves from the reinvigorated Conservatives. Whilst James is by no means a perfect leader, she may at least offer the party a fresh start; an opportunity to put old animosities to bed and carve out a niche for Ukip in the post referendum landscape.
This is no easy task however, and without a more charismatic leader in the shape of Evans or Woolfe it may yet be too considerable for Ukip to manage. This revolution may yet eat its children.