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UKIP's existential dilemma

This was originally published on the 25th February 2017, and was republished here on the 3rd January 2022.

What does the United Kingdom Independence Party stand for?

UKIP leader Paul Nuttall (Photo: Joe Giddins/PA)

That is, on the surface, actually quite easy to answer: they want a United Kingdom that is independent of the European Union. Last year we learned via referendum that a majority of Britons want that too, and the British government — a Conservative Party government, not a UKIP one — is going through the process of extracting the country from the European super-state.

The problem for UKIP is that Britain leaving the EU removes their own raison d’être. The party seems to realise this, and has spent the last two years trying to build a purpose for the party beyond its foundation principle. UKIP made some big gains at the general election in 2015, coming second in 120 of the 650 constituencies, most of which were in Labour heartland in the north of England. This sounds impressive for a party that is, as far as British political parties go, quite young, particularly given it only really became a ‘serious’ party within in the last decade.

However, in most of these second-place performances, UKIP was in second by 10% or more. This is suggestive of a wider problem that the party faces at the moment, which is exemplified in their second place in the Stoke-on-Trent by-election. This was a seat that Labour won in 2015 with 39.3% of the vote, and UKIP just pipped the Conservatives for second, with 22.7% against 22.5%. This council area voted the most heavily for Leave out of any in the entire United Kingdom, and many thought UKIP could win the seat, or at the very least run it mighty close.

Instead, despite UKIP’s new leader Paul Nuttall being their candidate, Labour won with 37.1%, UKIP came second with 24.7% and the Conservatives came third with 24.3%. The needle barely moved. Why?

UKIP founder Alan Sked (Photo: Reuters)

UKIP began its life as a party of the City, founded by Alan Sked, a former Liberal candidate and London School of Economics professor who was disgruntled at the multi-party embrace of the European Union. It quickly attracted the support of former Conservatives, some from the Thatcher era and others from before her, and in 1999 gained entry into the European Parliament.

The connection between these two parties can be best observed by UKIP’s decision not to run against Conservative MPs who were known to be Eurosceptic in the 2001 general election, to the annoyance of Robert Kilroy-Silk, former Labour MP turned chat show host. Kilroy-Silk was recruited by the party for the 2004 European elections, and became an MEP, only to quit the party once his transparent leadership ambitions were quashed. Nevertheless, his time with UKIP forced the party into other attempts to broaden their appeal, which brought them head-to-head with another minor party making headway in the European Parliament: the British National Party.

Whereas UKIP had its roots in the financial world and had gained support among the old conservatives of the southern counties and in the Midlands, the BNP had been founded by Nazi sympathiser John Tyndall and had gained its support in the industrial north. Both parties existed in opposition to the European Union, but UKIP was the party of choice for disgruntled Conservatives, whereas the BNP was the home for (a lesser amount of) former Labour members. Both sought to defeat the other and become the primary vehicle for Britain leaving the European Union, and the period from 2005 to 2010 was a battle between the two for this place. Whichever party lost was unlikely to come back.

In the end, UKIP won. The BNP’s fascist past, racialist policies and non-stop infighting, combined with the appearance of their leader Nick Griffin on Question Time, which was essentially an hour of throwing metaphorical eggs his way, guaranteed that potential voters would turn away from them. UKIP was, in contrast, quite harmless, and under Nigel Farage was able to watch from the sidelines as the BNP imploded, and then began to lure those same industrial northern voters towards them instead. Having started his first leadership stint in 2006 by putting forward conservative policies to guarantee that disgruntled Tories would shift to UKIP, Farage began his second stint in 2010 by campaigning against austerity and adopting other policies that have more than a whiff of old Labour about them, something that has continued to this day under Nuttall.

Paul Nuttall and Nigel Farage after Nuttall’s election as UKIP leader (Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga/European Press Agency)

Therein lies the issue for UKIP. They are a party fundamentally founded on principles of liberalism, which have been adhered to by almost all of their leaders; they are a party that first appealed to old Conservative voters who were unhappy with the direction of the party, many of whom live in the counties; they are a party whose biggest voter base today is old Labour territory.

They are the party of the disaffected voter, and their great enemy is an organisation (the EU) which exemplifies why voters are disaffected. But being the party of the disaffected will never win them a thing, because they are defined by what they are not, rather than what they are. They are trying to be all things to all people, which is a political impossibility. Parties exist because of ideological similarity, to create a government based on that ideology. A UKIP government has no clearly defined ideological basis, because its sole unifying factor has been its opposition to the European Union, and to all the politics that surrounds it. It is impossible to see a future in which the United Kingdom leaves the European Union and UKIP survives.

This is not to say that UKIP can’t have a big impact on British politics in next few years. Their attempt to be all things to all people may not get them any further than second place in many constituencies, but it can force each party to reassess its own ideology. Labour has already done this to some extent with the re-emergence of socialism in the party, even though many of its MPs wish their leader was another Tony Blair. The Conservatives have not yet done this, but once the EU issue is over it is quite easy to see tensions returning to prominence between the party’s liberal and conservative wings. Were the Conservatives to fully abandon conservatism, UKIP would be waiting with open arms, perhaps even replacing them. But it seems much more likely that a grassroots campaign would change the Conservatives as it has Labour, instead of UKIP replacing a major party.

What does the United Kingdom Independence Party stand for? If they realise that their time is limited, they will stand for a realignment of the ideologies of the major parties (including the Liberal party, where people like Farage should actually be at home). If they do not, they will simply wither away after achieving their goal: leaving the European Union.


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