Consider this: While Nigel Farage postures in New York, apparently trying to choose between being Britain’s man in Washington or signing a £750,00 (Dh3.43 million) contract to appear on I’m a Celebrity, United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), the party of which he is supposed to be once again the leader, appears to be in meltdown.
This week, Diane James, who but a few weeks ago was elected to the top job, only to stand down almost at once, left the party all together claiming a complete breakdown in relations with its national executive. So has Steven Woolfe, an early starter in the race to succeed her.
In fact, candidates in the contest are dropping like leaves from the autumn trees. There may now be more former candidates than ones still in the race. But that may be the least of Ukip’s woes as it sups the bitter draught of victory. An Electoral Commission investigation into the party’s election spending has been launched, and party support in one poll (they’re all we have to go on) appears to have slumped to as little as 6 per cent. A fortnight ago, Arron Banks, the party’s banker, had warned that the party could be about to die.
Ukip, the sledge hammer that smashed the establishment, is suffering a bit of a crisis of purpose. Like Brexit, Ukip means Ukip — but what does that look like? There are interesting questions about whether it might try to reshape itself to hoover up Labour voters who are not persuaded that Jeremy Corbyn has the answer to their discontent — a party that is both nationalist and populist.
But surely, the significant point about Ukip, like Farage who will always be its spiritual if not its titular leader, is that it is not actually a political party, at least not in any traditional sense. It is not Left or Centre or Right, although it has some of the characteristics of the Right and appeals to some on the Left (a quarter of Ukip members have voted Labour in the past). It seems almost tailor-made to be the organising principle for an authoritarian populist party of the kind that the polling organisation YouGov recently described. It embodies the movement politics that are so profoundly shaking western democracies.
Cultural and political miserableness
According to YouGov, the characteristics of authoritarian populists are cynicism about human rights, hostility to the state (or at least to the idea of a European state), opposition to immigration and an enthusiasm for a strong defence and foreign policy. You could sum it up as a kind of cultural and political miserableness, a sort of update of the Alf Garnett dystopia of the 1960s, dissatisfied, distrusting and disapproving.
Candidates to lead Ukip would strongly deny that this is their party’s appeal. Suzanne Evans, one of the front-runners, has explicitly pledged to rid the party of its “toxic” image, earning an angry rebuke from Farage. Yet, in a world where politicians still try to sell hope, Ukip markets grumpiness and discontent.
And this is its strength and its fatal flaw. The reason why the Ukip leadership contest seems so fissile is that it is not actually a party at all. It is a state of mind. There is no party, in the sense of a rules-based structure with organised support across local communities working to achieve a set of mutually-agreed policies. There is only emotion. Emotions — as American President-elect Donald Trump, a man utterly and entirely at odds with the party in whose name he stood, demonstrated — are a powerful thing in politics. But they are also the antithesis of conventional political organisation. They are not about discipline and focus; they cherish spontaneity and authenticity. They don’t want a leader, or a manifesto, nor even necessarily MPs. As the Farage-Banks duopoly likes to boast, one man who has never been elected to parliament has led the UK out of Europe and toppled a prime minister.
Who needs a party when representing a state of mind can achieve so much?
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Anne Perkins is a leader writer, lobby correspondent and feature writer.