The Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election last month was Paul Nuttall’s big moment. It was hailed as the moment where the UK Independence Party would put an end to its post-Brexit turmoil, pull together, and cement itself as the official anti-establishment party of British politics, by seeing the so-called “Brexit capital” send UKIP’s leader scampering down to Westminster. After weeks of bold prophecies of an insurgent UKIP destined to usurp Labour as the voice of the working class, Nuttall made a truly bold call by putting himself on the ballot paper as the UKIP candidate for the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election.
Alas, he lost.
Of course, it would have been a huge turn-up for the books had he won. The Stoke central area has sent a Labour MP to Parliament in every general election without fail since the 1930s. Moreover, they would have overturned a 16-point Labour majority from the last general election under Tristram Hunt.
Yet Stoke as a city had backed Brexit by the biggest margin of all the UK cities (hence the moniker “Brexit capital of Britain”). And in the 2014 European elections, 40% of Stoke residents had backed UKIP. Further, with polls confirming Labour’s ongoing capitulation under Jeremy Corbyn, trailing the Conservatives by a mammoth 14 points, the stage was set, it seemed, for UKIP to send more shockwaves through Parliament with another historic electoral victory. Yet Nuttall’s bold bid to become UKIP’s second MP only twelve weeks after securing the top spot of UKIP leader flopped spectacularly. A fabricated claim about his experience of the Hillsborough Disaster was all it took to secure his defeat.
Now, his party is tearing itself apart, embroiled in a bitter factional dispute between key figures. Not for the first time in UKIP’s history, this dispute finds its roots in the strategic direction UKIP should be headed. On the one side stands those wedded to UKIP’s traditional libertarian roots, who advocate an economically liberal UKIP and strongly oppose UKIP’s shift towards being a radical anti-immigration movement – headed most notably by its sole MP, Douglas Carswell. On the other stands those who seek to push UKIP further right, to make it even more radical and anti-establishment than its current calibration – led by Nigel Farage and long-time ally and UKIP financier, Arron Banks (see here, for example). Yet as has often been the case with UKIP’s factional disputes, this has denigrated into a battle of egos, most recently with Carswell being accused of having attempted to stand in the way of a Farage knighthood.
With the allegations of Carswell blocking a Farage knighthood arising just as the voters in Stoke were heading to the polls, the immediate aftermath of Nuttall’s loss was made all the more difficult. Jumping on the “jumble sale” style way in which UKIP was being run, a nuclear Arron Banks launched a furious bid to seize control of the party and purge Carswell. In a public ultimatum to Nuttall, Banks demanded he is named party chairman and be given sweeping powers over party membership or else he would pull his funding from UKIP and instead back a rival anti-establishment party, which would “destroy” UKIP.
Nuttall’s response to this was steely and unequivocal, proclaiming, “the party chairmanship is not on offer.” In a bid to shore up his leadership credentials, Nuttall went on to state his displeasure he and the party have had over Banks’ public criticism of the party and his leadership. Now, Banks has been ejected from the party and has stated plainly, “we will now be concentrating on our new movement.“
Yet while UKIP has overcome numerous instances of torrid infighting over its short history, Banks’ donations made up a sizeable portion of its funding. Already struggling to stay afloat financially, this could pose yet another sizeable threat to the party’s future. Nuttall does not have to be a political historian (which, funnily, he is) to recall the early years of UKIP in the 1990s when it floundered electorally against a better-funded opponent espousing a similar message to their own.
Thus, having lost a great deal of political capital with his failed gamble for the Stoke seat, Nuttall now has the herculean task of rescuing his party before it disintegrates into post-Brexit oblivion, as many predicted they would.
Nuttall, nevertheless, has vowed to soldier on, reasserting his leadership credentials and vision for UKIP at his party’s south-west regional conference earlier this month. The way things are going currently, he may not get the chance to see this vision through. However, it important to note that were he to be successful in reasserting his leadership and unifying the party as he has vowed, there is a chance that UKIP may yet be a hit under Nuttall. The reason: the electoral potential of Nuttall’s UKIP strategy.
While historically, UKIP’s electoral strength was with middle-class, southern and euro-sceptic Tories, Paul Nuttall was, in fact, one of the first to identify the fertile electoral ground within the “Old Labour” vote. Back in 2009, Nuttall was a key figure behind UKIP’s strategic shift to begin appealing to disillusioned, socially conservative working-classes, who had traditionally voted Labour. In their compelling book on the evolution of UKIP, “Revolt on the Right“, Professors Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford explain:
“The Labour voters Nuttall was urging his party to target… were, he argued, less likely to vote, more hard-line on crime and punishment… less concerned about ‘new left’ issues like multiculturalism, human rights or climate change and instinctively opposed to the EU.”
The reason behind this, as Goodwin and Ford point out, is the perceived working-class backlash against the socially liberal policies of Tony Blair’s “New Labour” back in 1997. The cosmopolitan hue to New Labour saw a focus on liberal concerns such as enacting the Human Rights Act 1998 and a perceived cosying up to the banks in lieu of traditional Labour focus, such as workers’ rights. It is here where we can see Labour losing its perception of being the protectorate of the ordinary man and instead of being assimilated with the Tories, culminating in both parties being conflated to represent the “liberal Westminster elites” in the minds of many.
Crucially, it is in the area of immigration where New Labour disillusioned so many of its traditional voters. During New Labour’s tenure, net immigration soared with net annual immigration quadrupling and the UK population growing by more than 2.2 million immigrants between 1997 and 2010.
Yet the potency of the liberal middle-class vote with which New Labour had courted so successfully with their creation of a new, cosmopolitan Britain, dictated that these concerns went unheeded by the governments of Blair and Brown. Tapping into New Labour’s modern, socially liberal policies, the Conservative-led government from 2010 was not much different in the eyes of “the left behind”. And while Cameron’s government pledged to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands, this pledge, needless to say, went wholly unfulfilled.
Thus, when the long-awaited EU referendum finally rolled up in the summer of last year, it was immigration that proved to be one of the factors that drove voters to vote Leave, sticking two fingers up at the establishment as they did. What is more, it was areas in the UK where the “Old Labour” vote Nuttall identified which voted most vociferously to leave the EU – areas such as the east midlands and north east of England.
Clear fissures within Labour’s voter coalition, therefore, have appeared down social fault lines. The issue of immigration has cleaved in two the voting block which provided Tony Blair with his landslide victories, with socially liberal, urban voters embracing immigration on one side, and disillusioned, white, working-class voters who view immigration as a central reason behind their economic difficulties on the other.
With disillusionment amongst the working classes at its peak, then, all one needs to do is look to Donald Trump’s election in America to see the potential of Paul Nuttall’s strategy. What is more, with an enfeebled Labour party continuing to stumble on, being led wistfully down a path-to-nowhere by a staunchly pro-immigration Jeremy Corbyn, the time could not be better for UKIP to pounce.
Yet whether Nuttall will ever get the chance to truly exploit the electoral potential he has so keenly identified depends on two factors: whether he has lost too much of his credibility as a leader in the eyes of both the public and his UKIP peers, and, crucially, whether he can end the turmoil within the UKIP ranks and bring the party together.
He has, until recently, retained strong support amongst both UKIP’s longest-serving members as well as the MEPs currently sitting in Brussels. And he may yet win the hearts and minds of the disillusioned, working-class voters he so doggedly pursues. The odds, however, are stacked heavily against him. Nevertheless, what is clear is regardless of whether Nuttall or UKIP survive this storm, the appetite for a party representing disillusioned, anti-establishment voters in the UK isn’t going anywhere.