Regarding UKIP’s chances in the by-election in Stoke, one commentator asked: “if not there; where? And if not now; when?”
Stoke Central was one of the most Brexit-friendly constituencies in the country, and UKIP polled very well there in the European Parliamentary elections of 2014. The Labour Party, incumbent in that seat, are floundering under Comrade Corbyn’s leadership; and the official Labour candidate was painfully low-calibre. The conditions for a UKIP win will hardly be better than they were in Stoke Central. If the UKIP intention of replacing the Labour Party in the post-industrial north is going to materialise, then they cannot afford to miss opportunities like this one.
The real concern for UKIP ought to be: what is a UK independence party to do once the UK is independent? For years they have been a one-issue party, and a one-man band. That issue is now effectively settled. Had all the mainstream parties united around a ‘Soft-Brexit’ with membership of the Internal Market (which is no Brexit at all) then UKIP might still have had a purpose. But Theresa May has denied UKIP that role.
In the 3 or 4 years preliminary to the referendum UKIP had sought to broaden their appeal and their policy platform. They declared themselves in favour of grammar schools – but this too has been undermined by the Prime Minister who has become an unlikely evangelist for selective education: despite having attended one, she spent many years pretending it had been a Comprehensive when she was there; the comprehensivisation only happened in her last few years.
In the 18 months before the last general election UKIP had begun to build momentum. They were polling well, and attracting people of talent. Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless are two notable examples, who took UKIP into Westminster. New risers in the party, Suzanne Evans and Steven Woolfe, proved effective communicators, and the face of what the party could have become. If UKIP wanted to become a serious political party, these were the sort of people that needed to be at its centre. But Nigel Farage managed to alienate all of them. Suzanne Evans was suspended from the party during the first leadership-election last year; and Steven Woolfe was bizarrely prevented from standing due to a technicality over a late payment. Diane James, the winner of that contest, lasted only 18 days in the job.
All of us who believe in British sovereignty owe a debt of gratitude to what Farage helped achieve. But seats like Stoke Central should be ideal for UKIP. If they continue to fail in places like this, then they may not survive beyond the next election.
The next election is probably a sensitive subject for the Labour Party too, despite their efforts to spin Thursday as a good day. They may have held Stoke, but they lost Copeland, a seat held by Labour since 1935. Labour MP Cat Smith said of this disaster: “at a point when we are 15-18 points behind in the polls; to push the Conservatives to within 2,000 votes I think is an incredible achievement here in Copeland”. This is a party that is heading for electoral destruction.
It is hard to know how Labour recovers from the current nadir. The problem with complacency is that, by the time you realise that what you were complacent about is now lost, it is too late to recover it. This exact thing happened in Scotland. For two generations the Labour Party dominated Scotland; it was inconceivable to think of any alternatives. Yet now they are down to just one MP north of the Tweed, and are polling worse than the Scottish Conservatives. Once that tribal loyalty has disappeared, it is almost impossible to recover.
The Labour Party have taken their own voters for granted for years. It is invariably in their own constituencies that the problems of mass migration have become manifest; yet the tribal loyalty to that party has taken a long time to break down despite the obvious contempt. Gillian Duffy provided an example of this phenomenon in miniature in the election campaign of 2010. Having made a few harmless remarks about immigration, Gordon Brown was caught on his microphone calling her “awful” and “a bigoted woman”. But this was not shocking; it revealed what everybody knew the Labour Party genuinely felt. What was shocking was that Ms Duffy went on to vote for the Labour Party a few weeks later, and then submitted to be used by the Party for several pathetic publicity stunts.
Stoke Central has proven that even when Labour holds opinions diametrically opposite to those of your constituency, they can still rely on your votes. It took a long time (and a credible alternative) before this ceased to be the case in Scotland. The same thing could happen to Labour in the north of England as happened in Caledonia – but it will need a credible alternative to fill the void. Can UKIP mature sufficiently to play that role? or will it be Theresa May’s Tory Party that sweep up the votes, as happened in Copeland? Stranger things happen at sea.