For the third time in seven years, Nigel Farage has resigned as the leader of UKIP. Despite becoming the undisputed face of the party, not to mention one of the most recognisable politicians in the country, this time it looks as if it is for good, leaving UKIP without the man that has led the party for nine of the last ten years.
Set up in 1993 to campaign against Britain’s place in the European Union, UKIP’s sole goal has been achieved thanks to last month’s referendum result. That said, the political landscape has never looked better for the Eurosceptic, anti-establishment party, which is on course to build on its impressive showing in the 2015 general election. With Farage gone and the country out of the EU, what does the future hold for UKIP, and what way, if any, should it turn now that it has been presented with the opportunity to rebuild almost entirely from scratch?
One of the main difficulties facing UKIP is that of image. No matter what your opinion of him may be, Farage’s undeniable charisma was one of the primary reasons for UKIP’s success with supporters on both sides of the political spectrum. Despite being a privately-educated former City worker, Farage cleverly managed to present himself as a man of the people and the leader of a populist movement fighting a morally bankrupt “establishment”.
As has been witnessed across Europe (not to mention the current success being enjoyed by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump), populism is proving to be an important political force in 2016. Both on the left and right of the political spectrum, populist groups are using disenchantment with mainstream parties to expand their popularity. Here in the Britain, UKIP has also seen its popularity increase thanks to anti-establishment feeling, and this is where its best opportunities for future success lie.
UKIP's inroads in the north of England have had a stunning effect both on Farage's party and Labour, the latter of which is seeing its core support disintegrate. Across the region, UKIP’s share of the vote has continued to rise, eating away at Labour’s majority in a significant proportion of the seats that it currently holds. In the 2010 general election, UKIP failed to achieve a single top-three finish in any of the north-east’s 29 constituencies. By 2015, it finished in second place in 11.
As was the case in Scotland, Labour’s standing in the north of England is collapsing in dramatic fashion, and the reasons for this downfall cannot be blamed merely on anti-EU feeling amongst many former voters. Declining industry, rising unemployment, and scepticism over the effects of globalisation and neoliberalism have all pushed voters away from Labour and into the arms of UKIP.
Consequently, it is likely that UKIP will continue trying to appeal to northern voters in the run-up to the next general election. Whereas Eurosceptic “shire Tories” are likely to return from UKIP to their former party now that Brexit has been achieved, disaffected Labour voters will still feel that they have nowhere to turn. For this reason, Farage’s successor as leader needs to be someone who can continue the work made by the party by directly appealing to former Labour voters and talking to them in a language they understand.
Paul Nuttall, the deputy leader of the party for the past six years and a Member of the European Parliament for North West England since 2009, is not only one of UKIP’s main faces in the media but has also been seen as an authentic voice of northern working-class voters. As a result, he is surely a leading contender for Farage’s vacated role. Neil Hamilton, newly elected as UKIP’s leader in the Welsh Assembly, said as much in a recent appearance on BBC’s Good Morning Wales programme, arguing that “the future of UKIP is to hoover up the votes of disgruntled ex-Labour voters”.
With Labour slowly rupturing into two distinct entities, it is unlikely that the party will win over many wavering voters. Indeed, the party has become detached from northern working-class voters on issues such as immigration and national identity, and this has left a gap in the electoral market that UKIP has been attempting to fill.
Steven Woolfe, another of UKIP’s more recognisable faces and the party’s current migration spokesman, is an individual that many are tipping to be Farage’s successor. A close ally of the former leader and, most importantly, born and raised in the north of England, Woolfe is not only well positioned to appeal to former Labour voters but also has the ability to reach out to a broader base. Whilst the inroads that have been made in the north have arguably resulted in UKIP’s recent electoral success, a careful balancing act between the wishes of the party’s southern membership and northern electorate needs to be met if UKIP is to take advantage of a favourable political climate. Tilting too far to one side will only alienate the other, resulting in momentum being lost.
Likely contender: Steven Woolfe
Another problem facing UKIP is what direction the Conservative Party will take under its new leader. During David Cameron’s reign, a pro-EU Conservative Party has overseen a significant increase in immigration. Disillusioned Tories have therefore been attracted to the message of UKIP, and Farage’s promise of Brexit and increased border controls. However, a pro-Brexit Prime Minister – or at least one willing to limit free movement and implement strict border controls – could cause difficulties for UKIP, who will no longer have a credible stick with which they can beat the Conservatives. As a result, UKIP voters, buoyed by leaving the EU and concentrating once again on domestic and economic issues, could return to the current ruling party.
As the nation continues to come to terms with its decision to leave the EU, the political landscape lends plenty of opportunities to a Farage-less UKIP. However, as is often the case in British politics, with each opening comes a potential door that could be slammed shut. UKIP has a unique opportunity to entrench itself as a dominant party in British politics, if it has the wherewithal to do so.