UKIP is not the voice of Brexit
Why the establishment paints all Leavers as would-be Kippers.
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.
Every broadside against UKIP, every stump speech about UKIP’s politics of hate, every column warning that UKIP’s message still appeals even when the party clearly does not, is not really concerned with demolishing the inept reality of UKIP. It is concerned with attacking Brexit by proxy. So when a Labour MP warns that UKIP is using migrants and refugees as ‘”scapegoats” to tap into disenfranchised communities that are struggling economically’, as the Guardian reported last week, the suggestion is that UKIP supporters, and therefore Brexit voters, are scapegoating migrants and refugees. Or when a commentator calls upon his comrades ‘to stigmatise far-right racism without mercy; to call out the ignorance and racism of many UKIP activists’, as Paul Mason did a few days ago, he is simultaneously wanting to ‘stigmatise’ Brexit voters ‘without mercy’. The relentless attacks on and demonisation of UKIP are really relentless attacks on and demonisation of Brexit. It’s a way of attacking Brexit without confronting the reality of Brexit – namely, that a majority in the UK is opposed to the ruling elite.
This relates to another aspect of UKIP’s role as the official voice of Brexit. Its demonisation and marginalisation, and its defeat, allows those in thrall to the status quo, those who share the worldview of the establishment, to imagine that they are still, as they believe they ought to be, in control, dominant, ascendant even. Or as Mason puts it: ‘It is essential to offer the mass of UKIP voters a route back to mainstream politics, whether of the Labour or Tory kind.’ This, perhaps, is the main function of UKIP’s role as the official voice of Brexit. UKIP’s marginalisation sustains the fiction that the establishment of recent decades is still ‘the mainstream’, is still where the majority of people want to reside, if only they hadn’t been tricked by Farage and his cunning anti-immigrant posters. Brexit, which represented a resounding rejection of the establishment, starts to appear as an aberration, not an awakening. UKIP’s demise therefore promises a return to the old ways of doing things, a revival of business as usual. Nothing to see here. Move on.
Which might work if UKIP really was the official voice of Brexit. But it’s not, and it never was. The facts – and everyone knows how much the establishment loves the facts – speak for themselves. In all, 17.4million people voted to leave the EU. Even if every UKIP voter voted to leave (which, incredibly, they did not), UKIP still accounts for less than a quarter of Leave voters. More pertinently, this means that neither UKIP nor its ‘ugly agenda’ was or is the driving force behind the Brexit vote. The majority were as resistant to supporting UKIP before the referendum as they have been afterwards.
Brexit’s opponents can continue to treat UKIP as identical to Brexit in an attempt to diminish the significance of the vote to leave the UK. They can continue to demonise UKIP in order to demonise and delegitimise Brexit voters. And, in doing so, they can continue to labour under the illusion that a return to the ‘mainstream’ is still possible. But it won’t work. That momentous rejection of the political and cultural establishment, that vote for greater sovereignty, for political accountability, for more control over one’s lives, cannot be undone. There is a political mainstream, but it’s no longer of the Labour or Tory kind. Although inchoate, it’s a mainstream established by the majority who voted for a radically new political settlement nine months ago.
UKIP is a fading force. This long-time beneficiary of the political revolt stirring in the midst of the UK is now itself being left behind. But it’s being left behind by Brexit voters themselves.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.