Battle Looms For UKIP’s Soul
The term ‘existential crisis’ is one that most supporters of UKIP encounter on at least a monthly basis, usually directed at them from somewhere in the mainstream media (MSM) and usually wishful thinking on behalf of the writer. The party has been written off from its earliest days and even at the height of its powers, following the 2014 Euro Elections victory, there were plenty of commentators standing by to write the UKIP epitaph.
However, the 2016 EU Referendum result has without doubt changed the dynamic of the purple insurgent party and left it searching for a new raison d’etre. It doubtless didn’t help that the party’s main public figure, its leader Nigel Farage, resigned shortly after that referendum victory. In the year that followed there were two fractious leadership contests that produced first Diane James (for just 18 days) and then Paul Nuttall, who was plagued from day one by issues about his past connected to the Hillsborough disaster. After losing the Stoke by-election (narrowly and in the context of what followed with a pretty decent result) he limped on until the General Election and had to watch on as the UKIP vote was decimated by switchers to the Conservatives worried about preserving Brexit.
So, is it game over for the ‘kippers’ or could there be a way back? A lot will depend on who makes it on to the ballot paper for the latest leadership battle at the end of this month and then how engaged the membership becomes in the contest. It’s a law of diminishing returns as far as UKIP leadership contests go, with around 17k voting in the Diane James election and 15k taking part in Paul Nuttall’s coronation. After the general election wipeout the indications are that this years turnout could be far lower. Whether that will favour a candidate that some might regard as more extreme remains to be seen.
Currently the candidacy of Anne Marie Waters (pictured above) is causing the biggest stir. The director of Sharia Watch is a former left wing Labour candidate and served as an activist in the party for ten years. However, she has since re-invented herself as a staunch critic of Islam and goes much further than most of the other leadership candidates in her criticisms of the religion. Crucially she goes beyond just calling out ‘Islamists’ and says that the religion is not compatible with the British way of life. Her hardline approach has attracted support from Tommy Robinson amongst others and her candidacy is believed to have led to a four figure surge in UKIP membership in the past week or so. However, many inside the party have raised their disquiet at the prospect of Waters emerging as leader and it is believed that all but two of the party’s MEP’s would resign if she wins the race. Nigel Farage is believed to be one of those that would depart the UKIP stage. Many others have said that they would not serve alongside her and it is likely that her victory would trigger mass resignations, although it could also prove attractive to some new recruits. There is no doubt that a win for Waters would trigger a radical shift to the right and the re-invention of UKIP as a party occupying a different political space.
On the other side of the argument are those looking to take the party in a more libertarian direction, such as Bill Etheridge, or those looking to rebrand the party close to its original aims, such as current London AM’s David Kurten and Peter Whittle, the latter being the party’s current Deputy Leader.
One ‘dark horse’ yet to declare an interest in the race is Welsh based John Rees-Evans. The well spoken and very media savvy candidate ran last year and did well from a low starting base. He is a major advocate of direct democracy and is seen by many as the potential saviour of the party, although he is as yet untested in a major role. He is a ‘media friendly’ candidate and is unlikely to fall into the same traps that beset Nuttall’s leadership. Evans has called a press conference in Westminster this Wednesday where he will be making his intentions clear. One thing that is likely to happen is that those opposed to Waters will be looking to unite behind a single candidate to prevent her emerging as the winner.
There is one other potential spanner in the works of Waters advance. The UKIP NEC meets at the end of the month to approve all the candidates planning to enter the race. Waters meets the membership requirements and looks certain to collect the required number of signatures from members and branches. However, she was suspended as a general election candidate by Nuttall for some of her more extreme opinions and the NEC will have to rule on whether or not she is a candidate ‘in good standing’. Whatever decision they come to the result is bound to be controversial. However, with this leadership contest it really does have to be ‘third time lucky’ to appoint Farage’s successor, or else this time those ‘existential crisis’ headlines might turn out to be something more than just MSM soundbites.
Westmonster Dave is the editor of alt-politics.com