Under the transformative leadership of chief Brexiteer, Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party not only played a pivotal role in achieving its primary goal of engineering a political climate which allowed the people of the UK the opportunity to make the courageous decision that they eventually did to escape the clutches of the undemocratic Brussels-based bureaucracy, but the party also managed to treble its support, gaining nearly four million votes in the 2015 General Election. Whilst I can truthfully say that the thought of voting UKIP never seriously crossed my mind, it is not difficult to empathise with people who did just that. A raft of classical liberal policies combined with a well-defined and distinctive rhetoric of patriotism and anti-establishmentarianism saw them steal support from both the Conservative and Labour parties. Despite their popularity, the party fell victim to a grossly disproportional electoral system, gaining just a single MP with Douglas Carswell winning Clacton. With the referendum on Brexit behind us now, there is a huge question mark over whether UKIP will be able to reformulate themselves in time for the June 8th election, or whether we will see them fade into irrelevance.
I suspect that the latter is far more likely. It would certainly be an understatement to suggest that they have had a bad time of it since Farage stepped down last year; a catalogue of political disasters would be a more accurate description of events. Post-referendum Britain did not start well for all the delighted ‘kippers, with possibly the most shambolic leadership contest this country has seen in recent history. Diane James was elected, and promptly resigned after less than three weeks in the role, citing irreconcilable differences with the party apparatus. The new frontrunner for the role, Stephen Woolfe was involved in a physical altercation with a fellow UKIP MEP, after which he bowed out of the race, allowing Paul Nuttall to take the lead and win the race. Under Farage, UKIP were legitimately able to respond to those who called them xenophobic and racist, but we can have no such illusions about the new-look UKIP under Nuttall. As well as holding some rather reprehensible political opinions, their new leader has already accrued a public image as someone who lacks any shred of integrity, after allegations were made that he had fabricated claims on his CV and lied about losing close and personal friends in the Hillsborough Disaster as well as his address. At that point, you could be forgiven for thinking things couldn’t get any worse. That is, until Carswell resigned from the party to become an Independent, depriving UKIP of their only parliamentary seat in the process.
There has been a definite ideological move to the right in recent months under UKIP, illustrated most clearly by the announcement over the weekend that party policy will be to ‘ban the burka’. UKIP have long, in my opinion, toed the correct side of a difficult line between being a party that believes in decreasing immigration, and a party that is downright xenophobic. In my view, they haven’t just crossed the line; the line is being flipped-off in the rear-view mirror. Implementing a burka ban clearly isn’t about decreasing immigration, but rather victimising people, including UK citizens, on the basis of their religion. Policies like this further divide a country that is already experiencing heightened tension between religious groups. Nuttall tried to justify it on the Andrew Marr Show by arguing that it will serve to heighten security and the potential for integration. Instead, it would aggravate their voter base and create the potential for racially-motivated attacks, both verbal and physical. The hypocrisy displayed by defending this policy on these grounds is laid bare; how can security and integration be increased when certain groups of people don’t feel safe walking down the street? Besides, we live in a civilised Western democracy, and allowing people the freedom to practise their own personal religion should be an unalienable right which our Government must staunchly protect.
An equally shocking policy announced in recent days is the intention of UKIP to force schoolgirls from groups ‘at-risk’ of female genital mutilation (FGM) to undergo medical checks. It turns out that UKIP have not consulted even one victim of FGM, which would seem like a fairly fundamental step in the creation of a policy such as this. Furthermore, forcing these checks on some of the most vulnerable children in our education system is a complete breach of the right to privacy which every schoolchild should have. Although the full manifesto is yet to be released, these early signs indicate that the platform of the party has switched from ‘anti-immigrant’ to having more of a specific focus on ‘anti-Muslim’ policies. The Conservative’s stance on Brexit seems to have been a factor in forcing UKIP to the right, but the end result is likely to be a mass migration of voters back to the Conservative Party, with UKIP left to hoover up the far-right gaggle of EDL members and assorted neo-Nazi voters.
UKIP were necessary to achieve Brexit, but it is difficult to see what role they have to play going forward. The party line is that Theresa May needs to be held to account over her hard stance on Brexit, but this isn’t going to be enough of a reason to win over several million votes again. They are crashing and burning in local by-elections all over the country, and it is becoming painstakingly clear just how colossal their failure to rebrand themselves has been. They have always been thought of, and I suspect will continue to be thought of, as an issue-based party which the public utilised as a machine to protest the direction the government of the day was taking the country. The case of UKIP will serve as a warning to minor parties of the future that the importance of political adaptability cannot be overstated. Politics is a sink-or-swim business, and all the available information seems to suggest that by June 9th 2017, UKIP will have sunk.