If UKIP is sincere in its desire to remain a credible political force in UK politics, it must resist the temptation to adopt Trump’s populist philosophy, says Joseph Meakin.
In the aftermath of Nigel Farage’s decision to stand down as leader of UKIP, and following the subsequent appointments both of Diane James, and subsequently Paul Nuttall, to replace him, political commentators have tried to predict the impact new leadership would have on the party’s philosophy and message. The significance of this ensuing period was heightened as it came at a time in which the party was seeking to redefine both itself and its role in British politics post-referendum. Paul Nuttall has made clear the party intends to target socially conservative working-class voters, disillusioned with the mainstream political parties. This group of voters are especially significant for their role in determining the outcome of both the EU referendum and Trump’s victory in the US. But despite these parallels it’s vital Nuttall resists the temptation to emulate Donald Trump’s American winning formula if he wants his party to be perceived as a credible electoral option over here.
Trump’s unpopularity this side of the Atlantic is impressive. According to a poll by YouGov, fewer than one in ten Britons viewed Trump favourably in August of last year, which stunningly makes him more unpopular in the eyes of Brits than Vladimir Putin, a man who’s violated the sovereign territory of two other countries and who has a fondness for having political dissidents murdered. While figures from the same poll show Trump’s approval figures to be much higher amongst current UKIP voters, replicating Trump’s ugly brand of anti-Islamism, nationalism and ‘government can fix all’ attitudes would surely spell electoral disaster for Paul Nuttall’s party, who need to broaden their appeal in the current by-election battlegrounds of Stoke Central and Copeland. Trump’s brash character is not British, and it is no surprise that he is so unpopular in this country.
To avoid a situation in which UKIP becomes the British chapter of the Trump war machine and becomes as unappealing to the public as Corbyn’s Labour, Nuttall needs to stop powerful voices behind the scenes from turning the once self-styled libertarian party into a party of economic and social populism like we have seen in America, where Trump’s corrosive ideas have made transformed the Republican party beyond all recognition from the one led by Ford, Reagan or the Bushes. Halting this change will be easier said than done. The well-funded Breitbart News, which has been one of the only mainstream political news sources to be supportive of UKIP in the past, will have a big say in the future of the party. Much has been written about the appointment of Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon as one of Donald Trump’s senior advisors. UKIP must try to distance itself from the website if it wants its image to be clean in the eyes of voters in the north of England. Raheem Kassam, the editor-in-chief of the London bureau of Breitbart News unsuccessfully stood in UKIP’s second leadership contest last year, but did mobilise an enthusiastic and passionate support among UKIP members and supporters.
In addition, the money of top donor Arron Banks will help determine how UKIP’s identity will be shaped in the coming months and years. Banks, who infamously accompanied former UKIP leader Nigel Farage to New York earlier this year and posed with Donald Trump, threatened to walk away from UKIP if the party wasn’t going to reform, and has spoken of using his own online Leave.EU platform to help UKIP in the future. A quick glance over the social media pages of Leave.EU shows its pro-Trump sentiment and its hard line on immigration, which it sees as central to Britain’s divorce from the European Union. While Banks speaks of reforming UKIP at a grassroots level, my belief is the wily entrepreneur wants to ‘reform’ UKIP in his own image, namely as a party akin to Trump’s GOP, and lead it down a road of electoral disaster. Breitbart and Banks have clear and unequivocal pro-Trump agendas, which threaten to fundamentally change UKIP if they are allowed too much power.
Aside from letting outside influence force UKIP into the jaws of Trumpism, what else must Nuttall do if he wants to become a genuine threat to Labour in the North?
My view is that UKIP needs to talk less about Theresa May and more about Jeremy Corbyn in the coming months. The ‘hold the Tories feet to the fire’ on Brexit and ‘avoiding backsliding’ approach Nuttall has taken in his early days as UKIP leader seems unworkable; Theresa May’s vision for Brexit Britain are overwhelmingly popular in the eyes of British voters, so constant attacks on her handling of Brexit seem puzzling. Instead, it would be beneficial to focus more on Labour’s failings than the Tories’ potential to produce a dissatisfying Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn, a man who refused to sing the national anthem at a remembrance service for fallen British serviceman, and supported a bill drawn up by ex-Labour leader Tony Benn that sought to abolish the monarchy, quite clearly doesn’t represent the patriotic working class British north. But if UKIP can focus their attention on becoming a genuine alternative to Corbyn’s Labour, rather than hardening their stances on immigration, Islam and national security, they have the potential to put the final nails into Corbyn’s coffin.
Nuttall will address UKIP’s Spring conference in Bolton on the 14th of February. The nature of his speech will be telling. If he comes out with an impassioned case for UKIP and attacks Corbyn, the party can go into the Copeland and Stoke Central by-elections six days later with genuine momentum. But if Nuttall fills his speech with jingoistic tilts-of-the hat to Trump that get mainstream news attention, voters in the north may think twice before putting a cross next to a party they feel represent the ideology of one of Britain’s most hated political figures.
As a supporter of the Conservative party, I know I will not be voting for UKIP at the next election. But many on the left of politics need a new voice after being failed by Corbyn, and if UKIP plays its cards right, it could become the electoral force it has always threatened to be.