Your next mission, should you choose to accept it … is what?
The fruitcakes have taken over the asylum. UKIP, which well under a decade ago was a fringe party – it polled only 3.1% in the 2010 general election – has achieved the purpose for which it was created. Those critics who laughed at the party’s failure to win more than one seat last year should reflect that electoral success is only a means to an end, and is rarely the only means through which it can be achieved.
Rather like a fleet or army in being, UKIP didn’t need to win a direct battle against its opponents (which was useful because it wasn’t very good at it); it simply had to pose a sufficient threat to them by the fact of its very existence in order to prompt them into altering their course of action to offer UKIP the strategic opportunity they seized on Thursday.
Little more than a year after Douglas Carswell returned as UKIP’s sole MP, the true value of his party’s 3.88m votes is now apparent. So much for the ‘wasted vote’ thesis. Farage stands triumphant while all around him lies the wreckage of the careers of the leaders of great parties, of their policies and – who knows – perhaps yet of one or more of those parties themselves.
Never can the future have looked so bountiful in all directions. But in that excess of opportunity lies UKIP’s dilemma: after having succeeded in what it was created for, what does it do next? (It’s true that the UK is still a member of the EU but despite what will no doubt be delusional proposals from Europhiles for some new settlement on the one hand, and the paranoia of cynics that somehow the elite will backslide on the other, no-one can seriously question that the countdown is now running. The decision has been made).
UKIP’s European mission isn’t necessarily over even with EU withdrawal. There’s still the matter of the European Court of Human Rights, which remains a super-national impingement on British sovereignty, but that’s a lesser prize. The real challenge lies now within British politics.
Or challenges, plural. With all three old parties in various states of confusion and weakness, and with UKIP’s unusually broad membership base ideologically, it can – and must – choose where to position itself for the 2020s now that its former USP is greatly negated, or else it will wither and die.
– Does it try to build on that eclectic base and act as a generic protest party against a distant elite? But then what does it do if it attains power?
– Does it promote ‘freedom’ in more individual forms, harnessing its traditional liberal / libertarian strain, and so targeting the Conservatives and Lib Dems?
– Or does it seek to build on the huge Leave votes from Labour heartland areas where the Conservatives are limited in appeal and Lib Dems discredited, and position itself as the authentic voice of the working class?
These aren’t wholly contradictory strategies but there are clear choices that will have to be made between them, or other options, if their platform is to have some kind of coherence.
Beneath the policy question lies another practical problem: the party’s strength in depth, or lack thereof. As a young party, it remains very bottom-heavy: a lot of voters but few cabinet-capable and fully media-ready politicians, for example. If Britain had PR, UKIP would have won around a hundred seats last time out. Had they done so, could they have nominated enough to do the job sufficiently well without causing embarrassment? The track record from the European Parliament isn’t good.
For the time being, the leadership question answers itself. Despite Farage not being party of the official Leave campaign and despite some off-colour moments from him, this remains his victory more than anyone’s. Within UKIP, his position will be unassailable for some years unless hubris strikes. Yet Farage isn’t necessarily the person best-placed to capitalise on the immense strategic opportunity available – but who could do better even if they’d be allowed to? Opportunity in theory is fine but it takes people to grasp it in practice.
The whole edifice of British politics as we know it is weaker than at any time in the last eighty years. There can be no certainties at all. If the first half of the 2010s were extraordinary, the second has the potential to be utterly revolutionary – but only if those with the chance to make it so can take it. UKIP, unlike the SNP, may well fall short on that score. But then UKIP, unlike the SNP, has already achieved its greatest goal.
p.s. A quick word on Margaret Hodge’s No Confidence motion for the PLP. We don’t even know as yet whether the motion will be accepted, never mind how MPs will vote for it if it is. What we do know is that it carries no validity within Labour’s rulebook, only the power of pressure (though that would be considerable if it’s carried). What Corbyn is proving now, as Blair, Brown and Miliband proved before him, is that a Labour leader determined to go on holds an extraordinarily powerful position, particularly while the internal opposition to him remains leaderless.