UKIP will spend the next few weeks engaged in a leadership battle following the resignation of Nigel Farage.
The future prospects of the party itself are unclear; some had argued that a narrow Remain victory would have boosted UKIP’s electoral fortunes in the same way that the close “No” vote in the Scottish referendum had benefited the SNP. Instead the battle to leave the EU has been won, raising the question over what the People’s Army will now be fighting for. Farage himself has said the party will in the future “attract a significant vote” and that “UKIP’s best days may be yet to come.”
Despite this, UKIP faces uncertain times for at least three reasons. First, it must replace the irreplaceable Nigel Farage. Say what you like about him – and everyone does – but there is no doubt that he has proven himself to be an outstanding politician. It is because of him that UKIP started polling high enough to threaten scores of Conservative-held marginal seats, forcing the Tories to promise an EU referendum in an (ultimately successful) attempt to pull back support. Sorry, but Steven Woolfe, Diane James and Neill Hamilton just don’t come close.
Second, their electoral power base and source of significant funding – their 22 MEPs – will disappear along with the UK’s membership of the European Union.
Third, UKIP has been fighting internal battles for some time. One of its most able media performers, Suzanne Evans, has been suspended after falling out with the party leadership while its only MP, Douglas Carswell, has been ostracized. Both have been blocked from running for leader by recently amended party rules.
All of these problems are compounded the huge tactical error UKIP made in the midst of the EU referendum campaign.
The Electoral Commission was handed the task of designating an official “Remain” and “Leave” campaign, both of which would be handed £600,000 of public money, the right to contact each elector by Royal Mail freepost and prime-time TV slots for referendum broadcasts. UKIP’s error was to try and win the prize of officially-designated “Leave” campaign for itself – initially in the guise of Leave.EU and then as Grassroots Out. While claiming to have cross-party support, this merely amounted to a handful of backbench Conservative and Labour MPs. Vote Leave was backed by nearly 150 MPs including Cabinet Ministers, Labour MPs and even UKIP’s only MP. Vote Leave’s organisational ability, campaign experience and fund-raising capacity was in a different league to Grassroots Out. Most of this seemed to be overlooked by the Electoral Commission which found Vote Leave only slightly better suited to being the official campaign. Despite the cack-handed approach of the much-discredited elections watchdog, the truth is that the UKIP-backed Grassroots Out was never going to get the nod ahead of Vote Leave.
In seeking to win the designation for itself, UKIP missed the opportunity to entrench itself within the official campaign. The personality clash at the top of the rival campaigns between UKIP’s Farage and Aaron Banks, and Vote Leave’s Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott, has been well reported. But this isn’t the level of the campaign that I’m referring to. UKIP should have tried to have as many of its own regional staff and county/constituency volunteers in corresponding positions within Vote Leave. This would have given them access to something far more valuable than £600k and some TV time: data. Vote Leave collected large amounts of data on volunteers and electors. Access and management of this data was tightly controlled by Vote Leave and prevented anyone except senior volunteers using it. Those who could use it found sometimes hundreds of volunteers in each constituency (from all parties, and none) at their disposal. Many of Vote Leave’s co-ordinators came from UKIP – but there were plenty of UKIP volunteers who stayed with Grassroots Out or UKIP itself. I expect those from UKIP reading this who disagree with me probably don’t put the same value on volunteer and elector data that I do. Having this data post-referendum would have been an enormous boost to a party that doesn't have the historic data that more established parties do. In my view, seeking to head up the official campaign instead of controlling it from the neck down was a tactical error that came with a huge opportunity cost.
I predicted in 2012 that UKIP wouldn’t win any parliamentary seats and I think they look even less likely to win any in 2020 – unless they get lucky. UKIP’s electoral fortunes will rise significantly if the Conservatives fail to make a success of Brexit negotiations and Labour’s civil war leaves it ill-prepared to fight off UKIP in northern seats. Given how unpredictable politics has been in the past three weeks, it’s difficult to say with any certainty what will happen over the next four years.
A poll for LBC this week has a 10 point lead for Labour’s Sadiq Khan in the race to become Mayor of London. Trailing 55-45 is the Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith, with James Kirkup listing four reasons he’d bet £50 against the Richmond MP succeeding Boris Johnson. More damning was Alice Thomson in The Times (£), arguing that not only would Goldsmith lose but that the Tory high command wouldn’t shed a tear if he did; a Labour win would help Jeremy Corbyn survive until the 2020 general election – a price worth paying, some might say.
To all of that, I say don’t go down the bookies just yet. Here’s 10 reasons not to bet against Zac Goldsmith being the next Mayor of London.
The lower the turnout, the harder it is to predict the result. In 2012, Boris went toe-to-toe with fellow political heavyweight Ken Livingstone. Having faced each other in 2008, this was round two and the gloves were off. Despite impressive ground campaigns on both sides, huge media coverage and millions spent, the turnout was a ridiculously low 38%. It may be lower for Goldsmith vs Khan, and therefore it’s anyone’s game.
2. Zac may steal second preferences of Green voters from Labour
Green peer Baroness Jenny Jones told the Standard last May, “Most, though not all, Greens would usually vote Labour in a second vote in an election like the London mayoralty. But if Zac Goldsmith is standing, it’s a different scenario. Many of us very much like that he comes across as very green and committed and passionate.”
3. And Lib Dem second preferences too
In just five years, he reduced the Liberal Democrat vote share in his Richmond Park and North Kingston constituency from 43% to 19%. Brutal.
4. As well as capturing UKIP second preferences
Well, he will if he takes the right stance on the EU referendum. Despite a strong track-record of Euroscepticism, he has only gone has far as to say (on the Today programme earlier this week) that “It may be that [Cameron] comes back with reforms that are not adequate for people who are sceptical of the EU. If that is the case I will, along with those other people, vote to come out."
5. Policy platform yet to be set out
While rival Sadiq Khan has been firing off policies on housing (50% affordable housing target, London Living Rent) and transport (four year rail fares freeze, first year cut and then freeze in bus fares), the Goldsmith campaign has until now kept its powder dry.
6. The united nations of London
The Daily Mail recently highlighted that residents originally from India dominate ten of the capital's 32 boroughs, while research of voting patterns at the general election found that among Hindus, 49% supported the Conservatives compared to 41% who voted Labour.
7. The best there is
The Goldsmith campaign is headed by CTF Partners. Lynton Crosby’s firm not only masterminded last year’s stunning Conservative election victory but was also behind Boris Johnson’s two successful mayoral campaigns. While the Times article above is right to point out that “the newly knighted Wizard of Oz… will not be personally involved in this contest”, the campaign is being headed by Mark Fullbrook, who with pollster Mark Textor makes up the trio that is CTF. Deputy Director of the 2012 Mayoral campaign, Goldsmith has hired the best there is.
8. Closeness to Corbyn – motivating Conservatives
Dame Tessa Jowell was the initial favourite to win the Labour nomination, but a wave of hard-left supporters who had signed up to support Corbyn also swept Khan to victory. Khan nominated Corbyn for Labour leader (although he voted for Andy Burnham) and owes his current position to Corbyn supporters. The Tory campaign will play on this – even though Corbyn’s support in London is strong – because anti-Corbyn sentiment is even stronger among Tories in the capital; motivating them on a low turnout will be crucial.
9. Distance from Corbyn – demotivating Labour activists
The more the Tories seek to lump Khan in with Corbyn, the more he will try to move away. He’s been doing this from day one of his campaign. He slated Jez for not singing the national anthem and his comments about condoning terrorism as “particularly dangerous in London” were interpreted as a savage rebuke to Corbyn and co. How this will go down with the rank and file remains to be seen.
10. Top Tories want Goldsmith to win. Many Labour MPs do too
Toasting a silver lining is not the same as welcoming a black cloud. Yes, a Labour victory would help bolster the embattled Corbyn – good news for the Tories in the long term. But any suggestion that the Conservative Party is tempted to soft peddle for Zac Goldsmith is a great exaggeration. A loss in May would be followed by the tumult of the EU referendum and, later on, what could be a bruising battle to choose a new party leader. The Tories, including those at the top, want a win in London. The same can’t be said for those many moderate Labour MPs in London who may use a Mayoral defeat to oust Corbyn in the hope of saving their party in time for 2020.
Of all of these reasons, number one is the most important. It’s all to play for.