The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has elected Paul Nuttall as its new leader. Nuttall, a member of the party since 2004, is a strident opponent of political correctness, a climate change skeptic and believes abortions should not be carried out after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
After months of infighting and organisational chaos, the party is looking to move forward. Nuttall has already talked about how UKIP can “replace Labour” – picking up votes in mainly working class communities that feel let down by their traditional representatives.
This year UKIP got their long-held wish when the UK voted to leave the EU, with the party’s former leader and figurehead Nigel Farage proclaiming “Independence day” for the U.K.
But while UKIP may have won the war, they aren’t really sure how they are going to participate in the peace. With Brexit achieved, Farage resigned as leader of the party (not for the first time) and became a supporting player in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, wheeled out in front of half-confused, half-enthused crowds to tell America exactly how sweet it felt to smash the elites and take back control of your country.
Diane James was elected to succeed Farage in September. A mere eighteen days later, she resigned. Last week, she left the party entirely.
Earlier candidates to run against Nuttall made headlines for the wrong reasons — Steven Woolfe ended up in hospital after being hit by a party colleague. Breitbart UK editor Raheem Kassam, seen as the far-right candidate, left the contest early on.
Meanwhile Farage has moved on to bigger and better things, delighting in his role as Trump’s favored British populist and telling a Brexit victory party that there are “great battles to be fought, and I’m going to be fighting those battles.”
Gawain Towler, a UKIP communications officer and close confidante of Farage, told VICE News that his friend and colleague was going to step out of the way to give the new leader space to do his thing.
But Farage has been the figurehead for a movement that captured the imaginations of Trump supporters, the Five Star Movement in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France. The world is now his stage and this could be a problem for UKIP. Not only has Farage taken much of the attention with him, but his exit has exposed potentially fatal structural problems.
In a statement last week, Diane James said that although she had been nominated leader “by popular vote in the membership, I found that I had no support within the executive and thus no ability to carry forward the policies on which I had campaigned.” She added that her “relationship with the party has been increasingly difficult.”
James’s press officer, Gary Ling, told VICE News that James wanted to make the party more efficient but had come to feel as though she was “banging her head against the wall.”
Ling, Towler and other UKIP members who spoke to VICE News were optimistic that if these organisational issues could be addressed, the party still had a potentially bright future. While UKIP was once a merely pressure group, it is now a force that has brought seismic change to British politics.
A number of UKIP policies are being adopted by the current Conservative government: grammar schools, defense spending and the introduction of passport checks for patients at NHS hospitals all come straight from their playbook.
And with the rise of populist right-wing movements that tap into the insecurities and prejudices of white voters across the Western world clear to see, UKIP members believe that the party can make great strides – if it gets its act together.
Gawain Towler says that “working men and women – those who’ve seen the value of their income decrease” are a vital demographic for UKIP, just as they were for Trump. There are people, he contends, who will not vote Conservative but who are also turning away from a Labour party that Towler says is now fixated on “what students talk about at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
With the Conservatives moving into their territory and UKIP’s only MP Douglas Carswell hinting at a possible return to that party, an awful lot is going to have to happen for UKIP to be in a position to start wooing potential voters. But this is a party that has bounced back many times before. And in this febrile political climate, nothing can be ruled out.