For the first time since its founding, UKIP enters its upcoming conference victorious. As the party elects a new leader, it faces the existential question of what its purpose is in post-Brexit Britain.
This week, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) will hold its autumn party conference in the seaside resort of Bournemouth. UKIP has long been regarded as a fringe party, and its conference is frequently covered in the British media as a quirky and amusing aside. This year, for the first time since the party was established in 1991, UKIP is victorious: it has achieved its aim of securing Britain’s exit from the European Union.
The mood, however, will not be uncomplicatedly jubilant. Nigel Farage, who has been leader for nine of the last 10 years, announced soon after the EU referendum that he would step down. The party is in the throes of a leadership election, the results of which will be announced at the conference.
However, none of the party’s best known politicians is on the ballot paper. Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s sole MP, the deputy leader Paul Nuttall and the Welsh leader Nathan Hill, all chose not to put their names forward to succeed Farage. Controversially, two other prominent UKIP politicians have been barred from standing. Suzanne Evans’ membership was suspended, while Steven Woolfe submitted his nomination form 17 minutes late. Both have blamed their enemies within UKIP, a demonstration of the in-fighting between different factions of the party that looks set to dominate the next few months at least.
“UKIP is looking for its place in the world after the EU referendum,” says Jim Waterson, political editor of Buzzfeed UK. “The main issue its got is that without that uniting purpose – Europe – it almost seems that the party might be eaten up by itself, rather than dismissed by the public. Internally, it’s a mess.”
The candidates – three MEPs and three grassroots activists – are far from being household names like Farage, who draws big crowds across the country. A recent survey by BMG Research found that at least eight out of 10 people in Britain have never heard of a single one of the candidates. The frontrunner is MEP Diane James, who came close to winning the Eastleigh by-election in 2013 and succeeded in pushing the Conservatives into third place in the constituency.
“Diane James is on the modernizing end. She has been very concerned about making sure UKIP maximizes its appeal, normalizes and turns into something more like a normal party,” says Matt Cole, lecturer in history at Birmingham University. “Farage has a distinctive ability to be both a media performer and an outsider. It’ll be very difficult for somebody to capture that combination of characteristics.”
Whoever is declared winner faces a big task. Most pressing is the existential question of the purpose of UKIP in post-Brexit Britain, now that its unifying purpose has been achieved – a question that is likely to be a hot topic at the conference.
“UKIP’s hasn’t lost its purpose – its purpose will be for the next two years to press for hard Brexit, to guarantee our relationship with Europe is as fully ended as possible, and to act as the conscience of the Leave campaign,” says Cole. “So there is a new role for UKIP, not demanding a referendum but guaranteeing the referendum is put into practice. There’s a different question of how they win votes for that.”
UKIP won 3.8 million votes in the 2015 general election, and 27.5 percent of the vote in the 2014 European election. It has one MP and 24 MEPs. There is a risk that these voters will return to mainstream parties now that Europe is no longer such a pressing issue. The new leader will have to decide how best to retain these voters. “UKIP now doesn’t [know] whether it’s a party that believes in a free market and radical reimagining of the state, or whether they’re a ban-the-burqa, anti-Muslim party,” says Waterson.
In the 2015 election, UKIP scooped up votes not only from former Conservative voters, but also from disillusioned Labour supporters, particularly in the north of England. “It could be easier for UKIP to keep its Labour gains than its Tory gains. I think if you’re a natural Tory voter who’s been with UKIP for the last 10 years and you look at Theresa May with grammar schools, Brexit, and the promise to curb immigration, that’s ticking a lot of boxes,” says Waterson. “But if you’re a former Labour voter who recently went over to UKIP, maybe the idea of returning to Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-immigration Labour Party is not necessarily what you’re after.”