Paul Nuttall: Labour’s biggest threat in a generation — and UKIP’s only hope
A working class, ‘patriotic’ northern at the head of a populist party might well be the true fight for a stagnating and under performing Labour Party — never mind Theresa May’s government.
By Sam Shenton | 6th December 2016
Yes, we can all laugh — UKIP have had two leadership elections and three different leaders in three months, while the leader that was elected in the first election, Diane James, has now left the party following just eighteen days at the helm and then unexpectedly stepping down, citing abuse and discomfort within the party. Also in the past few months, MEP Steven Wolfe left the party after fellow MEP Mike Hookem was accused of punching Wolfe in the European Parliament, and former and then interim leader Nigel Farage had announced he would leave not just British Politics, but Britain itself and move to America, where the possibility of him taking up a role in President-elect Donald Trump’s administration still hovers close — and with rumours now circulating about the future of UKIP’s only Member of Parliament Douglas Carswell leaving to rejoin the Conservatives, UKIP’s position as one of the UK’s major parties is under threat.
With such a crisis of politics and a looming financial crisis following a lack of donors, it’s fair to say the new leader has hos fair share of challenges over the next three and a half years to get his ship in order. It’s weird, therefore, to be talking about this relatively small party as the biggest threat to Labour in a generation, when it sits on the brink of devastation itself from an internal split that shows no signs of healing. Yet, the party polled 12% of votes at the last General Election in 2015, and has consistently seen its share of the vote in many polls hover between 12% and 16%. Meanwhile, the election of the new leader, Paul Nuttall, marks a turning point in the party’s strategy and also in the party’s electoral appeal heading forward, even if their reason d’etre of leaving the European Union has been achieved.
Nigel Farage has focused on immigration and the European Union as his main campaign strategy as leader, which has culminated in the UK voting to leave the EU in June. Paul Nuttall, meanwhile, must develop a new strategy, and his position as a working class northerner with a background in the City of Liverpool puts him in prime position to develop the campaign strategy that will not just target a message of disengagement with the EU and other establishment institutions, but create a new campaign strategy based around UKIP’s new appeal: working class and socially conservative, former Labour voters.
UKIP, of course, rests in second place in many northern Labour seats which have been held by the party for as long as a century, as well as seats in the South Wales Valleys and other areas. Although cities like Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester may be increasingly liberal in their outlook and non-receptive to UKIP’s message, but seats in towns like Hartlepool and Sunderland are ripe for UKIP’s pickings. Having voted leave in the EU Referendum and a deepening disaffiliation among voters with Labour, UKIP’s populist right-wing message may ring home with voters unable to support the status quo, as well as with voters who may usually vote Tory but may see UKIP as a chance to destabilise and displace Labour in northern seats.
While it’s important to realise that UKIP’s election of Paul Nuttall as leader is vital to their new northern strategy, what’s more important is the analysis of why and how Labour is in such a position that has seen its core voter base come under threat from a right-wing party. Labour has elected a leftist (un)populist in its new leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has presided over a slump in the polls that no Labour leader has seen since the days of Michael Foot’s historic defeat in 1983. Beyond that, while the Tories have a new Leader and Prime Minister in Theresa May with a honeymoon period extending as long as six months or longer, Labour has faced crisis including a failed Leadership Challenge from Owen Smith (remember that?) and a continually low poll rating for Corbyn’s own credentials as a possible Prime Minister.
But that is, of course, just numbers. Labour’s real crisis lies in that its values lie at odds with some of the values of its socially conservative voter base. While many Labour voters favour lower levels of immigration, the Blairite years saw the party open the UK’s borders to unprecedented levels of migration. While UKIP want to crack down on that, Ed Miliband and now Jeremy Corbyn both embrace this and the European policy of Freedom of Movement of peoples, against the ideals of up to a third of its core voters. While working class voters become increasingly disengaged with a party that has seemingly lost its routes and become an Islington elites party, all four ‘Shadow Great offices of State’ (LotO, Chancellor, Foreign and Home Sec) now are held by MPs from London. In that situation, Labour cannot be expected to survive such an attack from a charismatic and northern populist like Paul Nuttall, who can rally voters to UKIP’s cause at the hands of Labour’s ‘softening’ vote share.
UKIP may be in turmoil — there is no doubt about that — and that is likely to continue. However, unless Labour can come to terms with its new position and the political reality we are now in, UKIP is now probably the biggest threat to Labour in a generation. No matter how Corbyn positions himself, it is undoubted that he is out of touch with much of his party’s traditional voter base — and instead of being the ‘Old Labour’ man to win them back on board after Brown’s defeat in 2010 and Miliband’s defeat in 2015, he is the man that is likely to drive ever more to UKIP.
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