The decision to allow Anne Marie Waters – co-founder of anti-Islam group Pegida UK alongside former EDL leader Tommy Robinson – to stand for leadership of Ukip has created fresh fractures within a party that is preparing for its third leadership contest in a turbulent twelve months.
Criticism of Waters’ candidacy has come not only from the modernising wing of Ukip, but also from strong supporters of Nigel Farage’s robust line on immigration and integration. Farage loyalist Bill Etheridge MEP warned against hardliners using the party 'as a vehicle for the views of the EDL and the BNP' while Scottish MEP David Coburn has warned against 'entryism'. Quitting his post as deputy whip in protest, MEP Mike Hookem said 'I am not prepared to support someone who seeks to single out a section of our society simply due to their religious beliefs.' 18 of the party’s 20 MEPs have reportedly said they would quit the party if Waters is given a leadership role.
This new crisis for Ukip animates a broader existential question about the Eurosceptic party, following its dismal results in the 2017 General Election. Is there a future for a party founded to advocate Britain’s departure from the European Union once that mission has been secured?
The 2017 General Election suggested that Ukip was more likely to be a victim than a beneficiary of this historic victory for its defining cause. Having secured nearly 4 million votes in the 2015 General Election, three-quarters of those voters abandoned Ukip in 2017.
How the purple wave broke: Ukip’s 2015 and 2017 results compared
So the new party leader – to be elected on 29 September – faces several formidable hurdles to a political recovery. After Brexit, the departure of the UK MEPs from the European Parliament means Ukip will lack elected representatives. This is a significant blow to the party’s finances and staff capacity. The party will also be less able to convince voters it is a real contender in the next Westminster contest, a point exacerbated by Ukip's failure to sustain a local government base. The party’s high media profile reflected the one in six votes that it won in 2015 – but its 2.9 per cent vote share should see this reduce significantly too.
Ukip’s 2017 failure does not mean, however, that this political space could not be filled again in the future, either by Ukip or another populist challenger. There is a natural core constituency for the type of political pitch which the party makes, amounting to around 15 per cent of the electorate.
Post-election ICM polling for British Future, to be released in a new report later this month, shows that while nearly three out of ten voters considered voting for Ukip, 65 per cent say they would never vote for the party. That is also true of 45 per cent of Leave voters, DE voters (59 per cent), C2 voters (64 per cent), the over 65s (63 per cent) and Conservatives (55 per cent). A majority of voters across every region is in the 'never' camp. This is a formidable hurdle for the party. The chances of winning any first-past-the-post contests, even while British politics remains polarised around the question of Brexit, seem slim.
Ironically, if Ukip's gloomy prognosis about Brexit being prevented were to come true it could transform the party's prospects. A phased Brexit, in which change comes too gradually and too slowly for the most hardline Brexiteers, could also prompt a similar rallying cry. While that argument would, no doubt, be made in the name of the 52 per cent who voted Leave, Ukip would need it to resonate strongly with 10-15 per cent of the electorate to try to get back into business.
But the party leadership contest has highlighted another possible future for Ukip: it could find a new cause to pursue. Ukip now faces a significant internal debate about whether Brexit or Islam should be its primary focus. Choosing the latter has a political logic yet it also carries significant political risk.
Nigel Farage was the most controversial and polarising politician of his generation. But he took a clear view, as party leader, that Ukip’s credentials as a mainstream, democratic party depended on rejecting any alliance or association with the BNP or the EDL. He also kept the party at a distance from European populist parties with racist roots, such as the Front National. Had Farage not done this, it would have been harder for Ukip to secure the defection of Conservative MPs or, indeed, win European elections and be perceived as an electoral threat in Tory marginals.
Yet with the pressure to appeal to 50 per cent of the referendum electorate now gone, a party that has fallen to 3 per cent of the vote will be more tempted to try to recover by appealing to those supporters who are most open to the toughest version of its populist message. Whether or not that gets a hearing may depend on events, and what happens over Brexit and other big identity and integration debates. But if the party loses its credentials as a mainstream party, its chances of returning to the national political stage will drastically diminish.
Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future