Brexit Burnout: The prospects for UKIP after an EU referendum



If Britain operated under a proportionally representative voting system, UKIP would now be a party of government; the junior partner in a Conservative-led coalition.


Instead, because the First Past The Post system distorts the will of the British people, in this multi-party politics era, the four million votes UKIP received at the general election translated into just one House of Commons seat. This scandalous democratic deficit warrants our attention, yet sympathy has been limited and, it seems, bitter divisions are beginning to destabilise the UKIP’s leadership. The issue at hand is this: does UKIP have the wherewithal to survive and, if not, what kind of movement will occupy the nationalist position it vacates?


Writing off Nigel Farage has proved a fool’s errand in the past. His party surpassed its own wildest expectations at last year’s European elections. UKIP has failed to capitulate, despite warnings that it would be unable to continue as essentially a one-issue party. Furthermore, the criticism Farage has received for reneging on his pledge to resign as UKIP leader after failing to win the seat of South Thanet has been, on the whole, administered by those who disliked him well before this U-turn. Although it is not reflected in Parliament, Farage represents millions of citizens by voicing concerns about the effect of immigration on housing, the welfare state and social cohesion. For those who have taken refuge in the UKIP camp precisely because it represents a challenge to politics as usual, the mathematical injustice of the electoral system may galvanise activists in the face of a perceived establishment stich-up.


Whilst UKIP has had surprisingly little to say during a summer of continued economic turbulence in Greece and, closer to home, the growing refugee crisis in Calais, its prominence in the national political debate will augment once Parliament returns from the summer recess. After Labour has elected its new leader and party conference season concludes, the upcoming referendum on Britain’s European Union membership will dominate the agenda, which will only benefit UKIP in the short term. Whereas Eurosceptic voters will draw little comfort from the mixed messages being sent out by the Conservative Party, for whom the prospect of tearing apart over Europe is every bit as real as in John Major’s tumultuous second term, UKIP will provide a clear, uncompromising opposition to an ever closer union. Many sceptical Conservative voters may have misinterpreted the party’s commitment to a referendum as tacit support for withdrawal. At some point in the not so distant future, the Prime Minister will have to present the argument for staying in, which will bolster UKIP’s membership numbers, as well as its claim to de facto leadership of the Out campaign. 


What, then, will the post-referendum future hold for UKIP? Assuming, as every reputable poll projects, that the electorate votes resoundingly to stay in the EU, convinced by politicians and business leaders that leaving would cost jobs, prestige and influence, UKIP’s raison d’etre would disappear overnight. However, this doomsday scenario will not necessarily unfold so unequivocally. If Farage and his senior colleagues establish a potent grassroots movement, UKIP could endure the blow of defeat just as the SNP did in the aftermath of last year’s Scottish independence referendum. This is all the more likely considering that David Cameron will doubtless present his renegotiation as a triumph regardless of what meagre concessions he is able to draw from Brussels. Those who voted reluctantly to stay in may feel that they were somehow tricked, just as many Scots felt after seeing Westminster promises broken. 


Yet, the comparison with Scottish nationalism is undermined by the fact that UKIP’s quest to restore British sovereignty is seen as a fundamentally regressive, not progressive, idea. Whereas the SNP has an inclusive appeal, identifying with people no matter their age, income or previously held political beliefs, UKIP generally draws support from a narrow section of society; its supporters tend to be older men from working-class backgrounds, whose appetite for political activism is, by virtue of age and resources, limited. Moreover, although the question has not yet been framed, it seems certain that Cameron will have learnt from the Scottish independence referendum debacle by ensuring that remaining in the EU appears as the affirmative option on the ballot paper. The difference that a seemingly trivial alteration has on people’s preferences is so great as to call into question the logic behind holding such a referendum at all.


In the unlikely, but by no means impossible, event that the referendum produces an outcome whereby Britain leaves the EU, UKIP’s position in the new political order would be equally uncertain. Although the party would be aligned with public opinion, its ability to help Britain make the post-EU transition would be limited if it remained outside the corridors of power. Perhaps the only way the party could remain relevant would be if it drew-up a comprehensive strategy of how Britain would proceed without the constraints imposed by Brussels.


Either way, UKIP’s future appears bleak. Nevertheless, it would be complacent to assume that a discredited UKIP would restrict the far right’s influence on mainstream politics. If anything, it could enhance it. Broadly speaking, UKIP has a political agenda behind which its supporters can rally, even if the restoration of Britain’s sovereignty is often confused with other issues, most notably immigration. The danger is that, regardless of the referendum’s outcome, UKIP will be a party without a stated goal. Thus, the nationalism that drives its desire to leave the EU will be channelled entirely towards appropriating British values and opposing immigration in a virulent manner. Whether this shift happens within UKIP or under a different banner is immaterial; the consequences of nationalism without a reasonable cause will make the current anti-immigrant mood seem tame by comparison.


Despite having won enough votes in May to enter government under a more representative voting system, UKIP in its current form may not make a lasting impact on British politics. The ideas it has propagated and brought into the mainstream, however, will not go away by magic. When it comes to opposing UKIP in order to stifle the far right, progressive parties ought to consider what might replace Farage, and consequently be very careful what they wish for.

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