All in all UKIP could claim to have had a good year in 2016. With the wins in the few council elections coupled with the Welsh Assembly elections and those in London, the year should have ended on an electoral high. At the moment UKIP is a great edifice that stands in the polls at 14% with AM’s in Wales and London, 500 councilors 21 MEP’s and 1 MP in Westminster. A reasonable front for any new leader to build upon. So why the long face, you ask.
Paul Nuttall was elected after a crisis to be leader of UKIP. In this election we are asked to see the positives, but in my opinion we must seek the negatives to be able to address the dire position the party finds itself in.
The leadership elections, together with the elections for the 7 members of the NEC, are a starting point for this discussion. First it should be noted that considerably fewer people voted in the second leadership election than the first. Secondly and more importantly, apart from noting the fall in membership between the two votes, fewer people as a percentage of the membership chose to return their ballot papers. We shall for the purposes of this article set aside any discussion about the diabolical nature of the NEC count and the distribution of the ballots of the constantly delayed counts. That is for another day.
What should concern the NEC and the new leader is the very low turnout of votes for an election of both the NEC and a popular figure. 90 plus people stood for the NEC, but consider: that is one per 120 people who bothered to vote. Paul Nuttall achieved a greater win in percentage terms that did Diane James, but from a considerably reduced number of votes. It could be spun that part of the reason for this was due to the significant number of one-off events: the successful regional elections, the involvement in the referendum campaign and the resignation of the long-term leader of UKIP Nigel Farage. If that was the case it might be believable, but the former events should have indicted a high for members, for those wanting to be involved. The additional success in the referendum should have been a ‘shot in the arm’ for the party. It wasn’t. Why?
Well, the successes in Wales were based on very local activities (e.g. North East Wales), and a success there over a number of years; London was only restoring UKIP to where it had been 11 years ago after the disastrous campaign fought under the wrong name. The local government results were really very mixed. The party’s national organization has effectively ceased to exist. We allowed ourselves to get into more and more protracted and damaging internal disputes: a two sided Brexit campaign, the continuing feud between Farage and Carswell, the clear divisions in the leadership election campaign, the unnecessary exclusion of Suzanne Evans from the first election, not to mention the campaigns for the NEC elections. Please don’t see these statements of the last 18 months as a re-visit other than to set the stage for the problem that they have contributed to!
What the year has shown us is a decline in UKIP activity across the board for a number of reasons – some outlined above, others more serious and less easy to identify. We have lost voter share locally both in share of the total and in a straight fight, losing seats and failing to benefit from the Brexit bounce. As absurd as it seems: if you look at the table at the end of this piece the Lib Dems are the ones to have benefitted from any post referendum surge.
UKIP is in the doldrums and needs more than a new leader. I attended many of the hustings and others I listened to on the streaming or recordings made for me. Apart from the woeful attendance in the first contest, no one, including Paul, was really defining their view of the future. Yes: references to Brexit, holding toes to fires, making B mean B: all received great cheers, but if you couldn’t raise a cheer from these people with those catch phrases the game would truly have been up!
I said in a few pieces both before, during and after the elections that the leader needed to produce a vision. This is not a criticism of PN or any of the other candidates because I guess that they are finding it virtually impossible to define this ‘vision’, or their own vision, themselves. John Rees Evans came closest with his statements and speeches, but it was too insular as at its heart was reform of the party and an inclusive policy-making idea that would appeal to members. What UKIP desperately needs is to redefine itself not just for the members but the 13,000,000 voters and more who did not vote for UKIP in 2014,15 and 16. We are only just getting on our feet. The next job is to take the first step!
Standing on the sidelines as I have been forced to do, watching this car crash of a year has been heart breaking. The party has a small window – perhaps 6 months – in which to rectify this dire situation before the decline will become terminal. Much needs to be done, but we also need the right people in the structure to make this happen. We have to start from the ground and re-build again.
Finally the new leader has to personally find a way to exert his will. Given that the previous (real) leader is playing a leading part in Hamlet and refuses to exit the stage, this will become increasingly more difficult given that the American adventure now seems to have come to an end and the Dear (ex) Leader is now ensconced in the Halls of LBC. You couldn’t make it up !
The chart below, ‘Total council by-election wins by party in 2016’ illustrates UKIP’s difficulties. The Lib Dem success came mainly at the expense of the Conservatives. Of the 32 gains made, 22 came from the Tories, five from Labour. When charting the gains by date, 24 of the 32 were made following the referendum on EU membership:
Party Seats to defend Seats held Seats lost Seats gained NET
Con 139 89 50 17 -33
Lab 107 85 22 15 -7
LD 23 20 3 32 +29
UKIP 13 4 9 6 – 3
Green 1 – 1 2 +1
SNP 7 3 4 4 –
Plaid 3 3 – 3 + 3
Council by-election results in their bulk should not be taken with a pinch of salt or as an overruling reflection of national public opinion. It is safe to say however that a trend has developed with regards to a ‘Lib Dem fightback’, but we should be cautious about jumping to conclusions. Whether the Liberal Democrat success is down to a shift in public opinion or because the party is commendable at focusing resources on by-election campaigns is yet to be seen. Our polling model does show a slight uptick in national support for the party and of the last 10 polls, two have them in double figures.
There will be a better opportunity at drawing conclusions come May of next year where there will be council elections in England (much of the shire authorities), Scotland (all ups) and Wales (all ups).
I add my thanks to Ben Walker and Dayle Taylor of the Britain Elects Site for the use and permission to reproduce the chart from their report posted last month.