We fixate on the Ukip pantomime. That’s a serious mistake

Published by The Guardian (5th August, 2016)

You need a heart of stone not to laugh. Stephen Woolfe, favourite to be the new king of Ukip and backed by both its former leader and biggest funder, is barred from the leadership ballot. You might think that failing to submit nomination papers on time raised competence questions, just like forgetfulness over a drink-driving conviction when trying to become a police and crime commissioner. But his exclusion is, say allies, a dastardly plot by enemies.

Three members of the executive committee resigned in protest and there is dark talk of a split, with the insurance millionaire Arron Banks talking of purchasing another party. The new favourite is Diane James, an admirer of Vladimir Putin who has risen stealthily through the ranks of a party riven by rivalries and alcohol-fuelled rows. Among those she faces are a former wrestler, an MEP who wrote a book celebrating golliwogs and a councillor seeking a ban on Muslim schools.

As ever with fringe groups, the savagery of the infighting seems out of all proportion to size. Indeed, the party appears pointless once Brexit is implemented. The recent referendum result led Nigel Farage to stand down, saying that his political ambition was achieved. Now his forces focus on fresh ambitions – to become a permanent political fixture by exploiting the disruption of consensus, disenchantment with Westminster and disintegration of Labour.

None of the candidates jostling for position possess the cheeky chappie charm of Farage, which let him dress up the politics of anger, fear and xenophobia in a cloak of respectability . Matthew Richardson, the party secretary,  last year said they were standing up for ‘hundreds and thousands of bigots’. Yet aided and abetted by fellow travellers in other parties, Ukip first spooked David Cameron into holding a referendum, then spooked a majority of voters into backing its cause.

Farage will go down in history as a transformative figure, despite winning only 4m votes in last year’s election. Now he has fled the scene, reputedly to cash in as a reality television star. He leaves behind an economy suffering serious jitters, and allies who argued for Brexit struggling to explain the shape of withdrawal. Can the party survive his departure?

Ukip may be an English nationalist party, but like Labour and the Tories is proving vulnerable to powerful forces battering politics across the west. It is split between those promoting engagement with the world and alarmed nativists determined to raise the drawbridge. Although fused with personality clashes, this helps explain why its solitary MP has been in revolt against Farage, and its most appealing figure – the former deputy chairman Suzanne Evans – is suspended for disloyalty and unable to stand in the succession battle.

Manchester-born Woolfe believes Ukip can exploit the political earthquake of Brexit by targeting disgruntled Labour voters, especially in the north. His faction points to areas such as the north-east, where rhetoric railing against distant elites and foreign workers lowering wages strikes home in struggling communities. Sunderland backed Brexit by 61% to 39%, and the region was third strongest in Britain voting to leave.

James is a southerner – increasingly, these things matter in our fracturing nation. She was a Surrey councillor who came to prominence three years ago fighting the Eastleigh byelection, narrowly losing to the Liberal Democrats and pushing the Tories into third. She is competent, if not charismatic – although she has made the usual dismal Ukip gaffes such as blaming Romanians for crime.

The key question is whether Labour’s disarray offers post-Brexit opportunity to invade its terrain – or whether Banks is right to wonder if Ukip has gone as far as it can. Clearly there is little hope of Labour rapidly resolving its existential crisis, and many of its traditional voters feel disenfranchised. But perhaps all mainstream politicians would do well to stop being so fearful of these dark forces and start tackling the real concerns lying behind Ukip’s referendum success.

As the smoke clears from the Brexit debate, the flaws and lies in key arguments behind the decision become clearer. At the core is immigration, with foreigners blamed for political failures from health and housing to jobs and schools. Yet the north-east, for example, which backed Brexit so firmly, has the lowest proportion in England of people born abroad. It also sends the highest proportion of exports to the EU, benefiting from the globalisation that is so distrusted.

Or look at the Fens, home to four of the 10 biggest votes for Brexit and a Ukip heartland. It saw a rapid rise in migration from Europe, mainly people coming to work in agriculture and related industries. Yet British fruit and vegetable producers warn their industry will shut down if this seasonal foreign workforce is driven away. A report by the British Future think tank shows even here the vote varied widely, depending on the success of integration.

With luck the real nasty party will implode in acrimony. But regardless, Farage’s successor is unlikely to have his sure-footed populist touch, and demographics dictate dwindling long-term appeal. The immediate future depends partly on the ability of mainstream politicians to quash Ukip’s malevolent arguments and fraudulent claims – and, above all, to tackle failures and inequalities that have left so many Britons disgruntled. The Brexit battle is lost: but the fight for a thriving, tolerant nation goes on.

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