Listening to Paul Nuttall warm to his theme, it was clear UKIP’s new leader understands the strategy that offers the best prospects for his party:
“Today, the Labour Party has ceased to speak the language or address the issues of working people. They have a leader who will not sing the national anthem, a Shadow Chancellor who seems to admire the IRA more than he does the British Army, a Shadow Foreign Secretary who sneers at the English flag, and a Shadow Home Secretary who advocates unlimited immigration. They have lost touch. They are more at home talking about the issues that swirl about the Islington dinner party than the issues that matter in working class communities. So while Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party debate the Palestine question, fair trade and climate change, we instead will debate and talk about issues that concern real working people in real working class communities.”
This targeting of patriotic, right-thinking traditional Labour voters ought to have been UKIP’s focus for some time, but it has never previously materialised. Under Farage the party did pretty well in various northern by-elections despite only limited shifts in its message to appeal to them. Steven Woolfe, who wanted to take this tack, was forced out of the race. Then Diane James failed to address such voters in her victory speech.
Nuttall evidently understands what he needs to do to stand a chance of success. He is a politician experienced in the media hurly-burly, to whom these arguments come naturally, ever since he cut his teeth building up UKIP in his home seat of Bootle.
But if the People’s Army has finally settled on a viable leader who understands the challenge that faces them, the question still remains whether UKIP itself is up to the job of delivering for him.
The leadership election result itself displayed some signs of the troubles facing Nuttall’s party. There were 32,757 ballot papers sent out. That means UKIP’s membership has fallen by 30 per cent since its peak of 46,000 in May 2015. Half of the 14,000 lost members have left since July of this year, either feeling that the job was done or dispirited by the (metaphorical and literal) in-fighting. As a result, UKIP is now estimated to be smaller than the Green Party.
This decline strips Nuttall of boots on the ground, an asset which was already in short supply in his party. Various Conservative Leavers were shocked during the referendum to find that many UKIP activists, while keen, were entirely dedicated to the organising of street stalls, and often allergic to canvassing and Get Out The Vote tactics. The loss of thousands of members makes that problem worse.
There are also questions about how engaged the remaining members are with their party, too. While Nuttall won a bigger share of the vote even than Jeremy Corbyn – 62.6 per cent, the turnout for the leadership election was only 47 per cent. The majority of UKIPers didn’t seem to want any of the candidates offered to them after the departure of first Woolfe and then James.
Members aren’t just a source of campaigning, of course – they’re a source of money, too. Last year, 18 per cent of UKIP’s cash (just over £1 million) came through membership dues. Nuttall will need every penny he can get from the grassroots, because UKIP’s national fundraising has stalled. In the three months to September, the party received just under £43,000, less than half the amount raised by the BNP, who currently have no elected representatives anywhere in the UK. Only £9,500 was in cash, and most of that was from the Sovereign Draw lottery, the rest being donations in kind.
The financial picture looks even more grim when you consider that the vast majority of those donations in kind came from Rock Services Ltd, of which Arron Banks is a director. Banks appears to have fallen out of love with UKIP, to which he is now planning to launch a competitor party. Asked whether Nuttall is someone he could get behind, he replied today that he “can’t get excited about UKIP right now”. The apparent withdrawal of his financial backing, combined with the approaching disappearance of UKIP’s MEPs, who use their office to provide their party with a great deal of logistical support, means Nuttall has inherited an enterprise which has next to no money.
One reason for Banks’s unwillingness to get behind Nuttall is the new leader’s approach to reuniting his party. Suzanne Evans, who came in a poor second in today’s election, is a hate-figure for many of those close to Farage, including Banks, but Nuttall seems content to reach out to her. In his victory speech he appointed Patrick O’Flynn, a close Evans ally, as his Principal Political Adviser, and Evans has told ITV that “He tells me he has got a role for me, so I’m waiting to see what that is.”
This could herald more disruption within UKIP before things settle down – if they ever do. For Banks and other Faragistes, Nuttall is offering the wrong kind of unity – the mere hint that Nuttall might rehabilitate Evans led Raheem Kassam, Farage’s former adviser, to endorse John Rees-Evans for the leadership despite his absurd history of alleging a gay donkey tried to rape his pet horse and taking a gun to IKEA just in case terrorists attacked. While the new leader qualified his call for unity with a threat, telling “those who do not want to unify” that “your time in UKIP is coming to an end”, there are some who would prefer him to be purging people like Evans, Carswell and O’Flynn, and will take it badly if he fails to do so. Such factionalists might hope their opponents will be out on their ear, but they might yet find it is they who are no longer welcome.
It isn’t all bad news for Nuttall. Farage’s warm introduction will be followed by a swift departure to the United States. Though only a temporary visit, it will at least clear the field for the new leader to be UKIP’s main voice in the media for the next few days. Farage will head stateside again soon for a speaking tour of the US, cashing in on his closeness to Donald Trump, which will offer his successor some more room to breathe.
Plus, of course, the fact remains that Nuttall’s strategy of targeting disillusioned former Labour voters is the correct one. He has a plan, and he knows how to communicate to his target voters, and Corbyn’s Labour is guaranteed to keep reinforcing his message by praising mass immigration, apologising for dictators and terrorists, and looking uncomfortable whenever anyone praises anything about Britain.
For his plan to work, though, he needs to get his party into shape quickly. Finding one or more sizeable donors must be top of his list if he is to make this a false sunset rather than a false dawn for UKIP. For the Conservatives, this is a win-win: either he succeeds, in which case Labour will face a serious challenge in their remaining heartland seats, or he fails, in which case the long-running attack from the right will evaporate.