The Talking Point #20: UKIP at a crossroads

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Four leaders in 18 months (six if you include acting leaders). A disastrous 2017 UK general election. A complete no-show in the Welsh & Scottish local elections last year. An expected wipe-out in English local elections this May. On the verge of bankruptcy due to a successful libel suit. On-off in-fighting within the National Assembly group – the only place in the UK where they have any significant clout.

They say “be careful what you wish for” and winning the Brexit referendum in 2016 is turning into UKIP’s own Sword of Damocles. Struggling to find a sense of purpose – and having now confronted head-on what happens when a personality cult based on a single charismatic leader goes pop – it’s fair to say UKIP are in their death throes as a “serious” political force; it’s just a question of how long they’ll last and what comes after them.

The depths to which they’ve fallen were best displayed by the manner in which their latest leader left, having been embroiled in a row where his partner committed one of the cardinal sins of anyone on the Anglo-British right – insult a member (or future member) of the Windsor clan.

There’s always been a perception of a talent shortage within UKIP due to the dominance of Nigel Farage, who was their face, brain, mouth and arse.

They might’ve had ideas and some smart individuals behind the scenes, but they’ve never come across as a Brains Trust and seem to actively distrust anyone who sounds like they might know what they’re talking about.

Bowing to “common sense” has led them to where they are today – Neil Hamilton becoming the voice of reason and their only serious bases of support being in two institutions they opposed in the first place – the EU Parliament and the National Assembly; the former of which will have gone in a year’s time taking with it significant sums of money.

Whoever has the misfortune of being elected UKIP’s next leader will have to face several challenges head-on: how to stay in the job for more than 6 months, how to make the party relevant in a post-Brexit UK, how to stabilise the party’s financial situation and membership to prevent it folding and trying to maintain a presence in the Senedd come 2021 (which will become the party’s most important political outpost when they lose their MEPs).

Short-term, the most important of those are finance and membership, the latest splinter parties each trying to cover a piece of UKIP’s base: Democrats & Veterans (Bufton Tuftons), For Britain (Anti-Islam) and the Thurrock Independents (Localism). There’s also talk of a new Nigel Farage-led party which would presumably go after populists but nothing’s happened there so far.

Longer-term, if the party is to survive until the next Welsh General Election in 2021 then it needs a purpose other than Brexit.

There are a few options there: becoming a small-state right-libertarian sister party to the Conservatives and Lib Dems; an English nationalist party (or English interests party outside England); becoming part of a far-right populist front alongside the likes of Britain First and similar to the Swedish Democrats or Danish People’s Party.

If they don’t get this right, UKIP’s prospects in Wales and the rest of the UK are looking bleak. You would expect the main beneficiaries of any decline to be the Conservatives (as the new guardians of Brexit) and Labour too as the white working classes go back to usual patterns of voting.

Offering “the politics of hope” won’t mean very much when everything for the last few years been about “the politics of anger and frustration” – so that’s something Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems will need to address if they’re to maintain their position or make a comeback respectively.

Whatever direction UKIP take, will they be remembered as a brief dalliance with populist madness in Wales? Or will Brexit see them mature into something that can be taken seriously and have the staying power to be with us for the long-haul?

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