Regardless of the result on Friday, UKIP has the most to either gain or lose as a party from the EU Referendum. It could find itself cast into the wilderness, a party whose main policy has been rejected by the electorate. Or it could see itself reinvigorated by blue-collar former Labour voters, united with Tory Eurosceptics to create a new fighting force in British politics. Either way, for Nigel Farage’s "people’s army" the result later this week represents success or defeat - boom or bust.
Undeniably, UKIP is risking a lot on this referendum. The whole plank of the party rests on the policy of withdrawing the UK from the European Union. Claims of a costly, bureaucratic regime controlled by Brussels – coupled with fears over mass immigration – have seen the party surge in popularity over the last decade. UKIP came first in the European Elections in 2014, and beat the Liberal Democrats into third place (in share of the vote) in the General Election last year, after gathering nearly 4 million votes. To win this referendum battle would symbolise an amazing triumph for a party which only came into existence just two decades ago, and won its first seats in the European Parliament at the turn of the millennium. Losing, on the other hand, would mark a tragic and quick defeat for a party which has galvanised, shocked and surprised. The question being asked of UKIP now is: where next?
Victory on Thursday could see the party embolden itself as a major political force. Despite having just a single MP, both the party and its leader could celebrate exercising significant political pressure. If it wasn’t for UKIP, the party claims, David Cameron would never have been forced to call a referendum – which many believe he did purely to appease Eurosceptics within the Tory party. Post-referendum, the party could go on to ensure it exerts similar pressure over any Brexit negotiations with the EU. Indeed, whilst it may appear true that UKIP MEPs seem to act like turkeys voting for Christmas in the sense that they are keen to lose their own elected positions, in any negotiations the party will have the momentum and media exposure to push for issues they feel most deeply about. In doing so, they may force the Conservatives to split as they attract Eurosceptics away from their defeated counterparts, David Cameron to resign, and new anti-immigration measures to be brought forward. Winning, therefore, can be understood more as "job started" than "job done" for a party which will increasingly look to flex its muscles.
Losing on Thursday, on the other hand, would be a Pandora’s box scenario for the party. "Soft" UKIP members keen only to leave the EU may split from their more ideological counterparts intent on minimal numbers of immigration, and a massive reduction in overseas spending and the number of refugees accepted in to the UK. UKIP is not a homogenous bloc, and rifts between the pro and anti- Farage camps could be unleashed by the party’s failure to succeed. After all, UKIP has been calling for – and preparing for – a referendum for over twenty years, and so anything less than victory would undeniably represent a massive blow. This in itself could cause the party to collapse, as David Cameron attempts to rebuild alliances across the Conservative party at the expense of UKIP. However, a silver lining to what appears to be a disastrous scenario is the increased exposure UKIP has gained in the course of the referendum campaign. Many blue-collar, predominantly former Labour voters, will be joining with Tory Eurosceptics to vote Leave; and whilst Jeremy Corbyn has hastily tried to shift attention away from issues like immigration and towards austerity, it appears the way that Labour supporters vote will shift the way Britain votes. In all, despite the possibility of a bitter and narrow loss in the polls, sufficient grassroots support could be enough to see the party survive and go on to evolve. If the result is narrow, the party will undoubtedly redouble efforts to trigger another referendum should the opportunity arise. If UKIP trips therefore, we can’t assume it will fall as well.
The future of UKIP is notoriously hard to predict. When Nigel Farage and two of his colleagues were first elected as MEPs in 1999, no one could have guessed how popular the party would become; no one could have foreseen how influential its leader would grow to be; and only a few would have suggested this referendum would be happening at all. Nonetheless, on Friday morning it will become at least slightly clearer whether – for UKIP – this referendum has been boom or bust.
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