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The Strange Life and Death of the UK Independence Party

12 Jun 2017
By Nicholas Morieson
Nigel Farage (Wikimedia Commons)

With UKIP’s purpose achieved in securing Britain’s exit from the EU, voters have abandoned the party. Yet concerns about migration, free trade and cultural change will keep right-wing populism alive.

The UK Independence Party vote collapsed at the recent British elections, and the party seems to be headed for the dustbin of history. However, although the election results suggest it may have become irrelevant after Brexit, many of the issues which made UKIP powerful—opposition to mass immigration, Islam and free trade—remain.

There has always been something ludicrous about UKIP. Derided even by people that may have been expected to support it (traditionalist conservative writer Peter Hitchens referred to it as “Dad’s Army”), the party struggled to attract non-racist candidates. People who were attracted to its brand of politics were famously ridiculed by former Prime Minister David Cameron as “swivel-eyed loons”.  But when compared with other right-wing populist parties, UKIP must be reckoned among the most successful. After all, no other Euroesceptic party can boast that it led the nation out of the European Union.

Of course, UKIP was never able break the hold Labour and the Conservatives had on British politics, but it did shift the Conservative Party in a thoroughly rightward and Eurosceptic direction. Moreover, David Cameron’s fateful decision to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership would never have taken place if UKIP had not begun poaching Eurosceptic Tory MPs.

Now that UKIP seems to have returned to the outer fringes of British politics, there emerges a question over what will happen to its supporters. Which party or parties will they turn to? Who can represent them?

Who and what did UKIP represent?

UKIP was formed in 1991 as a single-issue party dedicated to getting Britain out of the EU and restoring its sovereignty. While the party experienced some electoral success in the 1990s and early 2000s—particularly in European parliamentary elections—it was not until the election of Nigel Farage as leader in 2006 that the party became a significant force in British and European politics. Farage—a somewhat eccentric and capable, if not charismatic, man—moved the party beyond Euroscepticism and into a right-wing populist movement opposing mass immigration (particularly from Muslim countries) and free trade deals, and espousing mostly traditional values.

Farage tapped into a large group of voters who opposed the Tories’ neoliberal economic program but also opposed Labour’s multiculturalism and policy of encouraging mass immigration. These were often working-class people who felt deeply disconnected from the Labour Party, which they felt disdained their patriotism and preferred to take the side of the recent immigrant over the long-established community.

Some of these working-class voters began voting Conservative. But many remained disturbed by the Tories’ commitment to free trade, their anti-union stance and attacks on the welfare state. UKIP, however, offered something different to standard right versus left politics. Combining left-wing opposition to free trade deals, which hurt working class people, and right-wing style language promoting British (at times Christian) values and opposition to mass immigration, UKIP was a more attractive prospect to some working-class voters than either of the major parties.

The Conservatives were particularly affected by the rise of UKIP under Farage’s leadership. While he sometimes derided the UKIP members as “odd people”, David Cameron was surely thinking of the threat they posed to his party when he began calling Britain a nation based on Christianity and demanding that migrants adopt British values.

Defeat in victory

Brexit marked UKIP’s high point and moment of triumph, yet it also sealed the party’s doom. Brexit resulted in the resignation of the popular Nigel Farage as leader and the loss of the party’s primary reason for being. Yet the collapse of UKIP in 2017 does not mean the end of right-wing populism in the UK or perhaps even the end of UKIP.

UKIP was always a strange party full of odd people, but it represented the voices of many working-class Britons disillusioned with Labour and the Conservatives and concerned by mass immigration, globalisation and cultural change. It may be that Labour, as Adrian Pabst has argued, can win back conservative working-class voters by adopting a patriotic stance and renouncing free trade deals.

For now, the UKIP vote is dividing itself evenly back between Labour and the Conservatives. But since the two major parties find it difficult to reach out to working-class conservatives, and mass immigration and issues relating to national identity are likely to remain highly contentious issues, a place will remain for right-wing populism in Britain—if a party is there to take advantage of it.

Nicholas Morieson is a PhD candidate and politics tutor at the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Society, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.