Could the party solve its identity crisis by becoming a racist street movement?
Anne Marie Waters (Photo by James Poulter)
In April, Anne Marie Waters was banned from standing in the general election for UKIP for her extreme anti-Islam views. By the end of this month, she could be party leader.
With Brexit happening, UKIP is engulfed in a major identity crisis and a battle for its very survival. One year on from the referendum which led to Britain starting to leave the European Union, UKIP opened nominations for yet another leadership election. Former leader Nigel Farage has opted to pursue a career as a radio host, Diane James could only hack 18 days in the role of party leader before quitting. Farage's former deputy Paul Nuttall saw the party haemorrhage votes in the last general election before stepping down. Having almost achieved its main goal, UKIP is on the brink of being captured by the anti-Islam street activists rallying around Waters, and rupturing, as the bulk of its remaining elected representatives quit the party in protest.
When Waters launched her campaign it looked merely like a vindictive move in response to UKIP's national executive committee deselecting her as a parliamentary candidate. Party leader Nuttall, who himself was criticised for Islamophobic campaigning, described her views as "way above and beyond party policy" and told BBC Radio 5Live her rants against Muslims "make me feel a bit uncomfortable".
Now, it could see her elected as the next UKIP leader at the party conference in Torquay at the end of the month. If Waters wins, one of the UK's leading anti-Islam street activists will have become the leader of a major political party.
When nominations for the leadership battle opened in June the odds for Waters to be the next party leader were 10/1 with the bookies. This morning she became favourite to win the leadership election; the best odds going are now tighter than 2/1. Around a quarter of all bets are backing Waters, according to betting odds comparison website Oddschecker. What's been driving Waters' rise appears to be a far-right version of the "Corbyn-effect", a social media campaign unmatched by her rivals, encouraging supporters of her anti-Islam beliefs to join the party to back her. It is believed over 1,000 supporters of Waters joined UKIP in the opening weeks of her leadership bid, and more are likely to have followed in the months since – although new members cannot vote in the leadership election themselves. Waters has also been travelling up and down the country, addressing packed rooms of UKIP activists with her nationalist message.
The social media campaign is being shaped by a group of young far-right activists, with equipment paid for by a successful alt-right YouTube channel and creative skills honed at university in London. In April – with Paul Nuttall still in his post – former "boy wonder of the British far-right" Jack Buckby (who is barred from UKIP for his past-BNP membership) registered the domain name forbritain.uk, which would be used for the Waters campaign. Days later, Waters was deselected as UKIP's parliamentary candidate for Lewisham East in south London for being too anti-Muslim.
The next week, former English Defence League (EDL) leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) publicly backed Waters' manoeuvring to be considered as a future leadership candidate. Yaxley-Lennon tweeted a link to a video effectively launching her campaign, telling his then 200,000+ followers: "You are looking at the woman who should be the next leader of UKIP." The video, which is no longer available, had been made by some of Yaxley-Lennon's then colleagues on the Canadian alt-right YouTube channel Rebel Media.
Waters was part of the senior management of PEGIDA UK, a botched attempt, led by Yaxley-Lennon, to import the German counter-jihad street movement PEGIDA to the UK. It didn't take off because the strategy of marching from an airport carpark to the industrial estate where they held their rally, on a rainy Saturday, didn't really enthuse supporters.
Since then, Yaxley-Lennon and Waters have returned to street activism with UK Against Hate –Yaxley-Lennon's attempt to cash in on the wave of ISIS-inspired terror attacks to hit the UK earlier in 2017.
Access to Rebel Media's production skills and email list meant the team which had tried and failed to import PEGIDA were able to bring thousands onto the streets of Manchester with only a week of promotion. Waters addressed the protest in Manchester, which descended into chaos. Mobs of supporters roamed the streets intimidating minorities and violently confronting left-wing activists.
Last Sunday, Waters headed to Bristol to make a speech where she tried to distance herself from the far-right while describing Islam as a "fascist ideology". She was speaking at a protest supposedly against Islamic extremism, organised by far-right activists under the guise of "Gays Against Sharia" – an organisation that has been accused of hijacking attacks on gay people to peddle Islamophobia. One of the organisers was Tommy Cook, who started the EDL's LGBT division. The other is a Greek-Cypriot who describes herself as a "nationalist identitarian".
Waiting to greet her at the ticket barriers of Bristol's Temple Meads station were two SIA-badged bodyguards, one of whom was wearing a padded gilet and looked like he'd taken so many steroids he found it difficult to walk properly. The other didn't look like he spent much time lifting weights and had an earpiece in his ear. The last time I'd seen Waters, back in 2014, she was being protected by an aged skinhead volunteer as she entered an election hustings. This time her security looked like they cost money and meant business.
As she left the station, flanked by her bodyguards, I asked Waters if she would carry on taking part in street protests if she became leader of UKIP. She didn't rule it out to me, but went on to reference our encounter at the start of her speech, telling the crowd she would continue to take part in protests when it was "this important". "There will be no reigning me in, there will be no apologies from me, there will be no backtracking from me," she said.
After our encounter, Waters then walked across a car park and stood with Jack Buckby and Lucy Brown from Rebel Media. She chatted to them and puffed away on a cigarette as they waited for the march to begin.
It was nominally against "Sharia law" and "terrorism", yet several of the marchers have histories of far-right organising, including Waters. Paul Weston of Liberty GB was on the march and gave a speech at the rally. In the past, Weston has described immigration as "ethnic cleansing of the English" and believes the UK is heading towards a race war. Another far-right organiser present was Ed Dowden of the South West Infidels, former EDL organiser for Bristol, who showed up wearing an EDL baseball cap and hoody. One UKIP member who joined Waters on the march told me afterwards: "The man from the EDL… was a great bloke" who "did nothing wrong".
If Waters wins, UKIP will split, likely consigning them to electoral oblivion. If that happens, it would not be unsurprising to see the new leadership using UKIP to try to develop a street presence. With the resources of UKIP, Yaxley-Lennon's surging social media profile and links with Rebel Media, we could be looking at something comparable in size to the EDL. UKIP could be the vehicle this milieu use to build the anti-Muslim street movement they have been dreaming of creating for years.
But if UKIP is going to become a far-right street movement, it can expect to be treated like one. The week before Bristol, I went to Sheffield to report on the UKIP youth conference. The conference had been due to feature Martin Sellner, an Austrian far-right activist behind the anti-refugee "Defend Europe" boat. Waters had also been due to speak. But it didn't happen. Taking objection to the presence of both in their city, anti-fascists put pressure on multiple venues to cancel UKIP's booking, which they duly did. As one Sheffield anti-fascist organiser told me: "We decided to take a stand against the normalisation of the extreme right and show it'll be more trouble than it's worth to carry on along this path."