James Frayne: Six challenges for Paul Nuttall and Ukip in 2017
The new Ukip leader could kick off with a major campaign tour of those constituencies whose MPs voted against triggering Article 50.
UKIP’s Paul Nuttall takes over the party leadership at a critical point in time. While EU withdrawal ought to mean “job done”, the backlash against it, led by high profile figures like Tony Blair, makes the party increasingly relevant. Furthermore, Labour’s extraordinary abandonment of its core voters as it takes on the mantle of the politically correct new left means Labour votes across the North of England are up for grabs.
Whether UKIP fade into irrelevance or become a populist alternative to the Tories will depend on Nuttall’s leadership. In a party where incompetence is widespread, Nuttall is an exception. As he seeks to take hold of the party in the coming year, what should we expect to see? Half a dozen things stand out.
Firstly, immediately, and funds permitting, Nuttall will surely be planning a major campaign tour of those constituencies whose MPs voted against triggering Article 50 – and particularly those where the MPs have a small majority and where UKIP are even vaguely viable. They will want to lock into the public mind that these MPs are trying to undo the referendum and don’t care for democracy. Opportunities like this – where the public are paying attention and most people will agree with UKIP – don’t come around often.
This campaign tour might also extend to those constituencies where UKIP are running Labour close. Even if sitting Labour MPs have not come out against Article 50 being triggered, the ambiguous signs sent by leading figures within the party mean Labour are vulnerable to a counter-attack.
Secondly, almost immediately, Nuttall must also be considering a new policy platform for the party – one that puts its Southern, Thatcherite past behind it and that embraces the populist approach that will see it take on Labour in the North.
That means continuing being the party of tight immigration controls but also the party of the NHS, jobs and training. With the Tories’ pushing a regional industrial strategy hard, UKIP need to have something to say about regenerating the former industrial heartlands of the country. They might need to embrace anti-free trade and state aid messages as they do. A traditional Thatcherite approach won’t do anything for them.
Related to this, thirdly, Nuttall will be thinking how best the party can embrace an agenda of clear but controlled anti-political correctness. Nuttall does this well personally, ridiculing Labour for obsessing about issues like climate change and Palestine when their core voters care about immigration, the NHS and jobs.
This anti-politically correct will also stand them in good stead when the unions come for UKIP if they look like seriously challenging Labour. These days, the unions themselves are increasingly defined by niche causes and can be dealt with more easily than in previous times.
That said, extending this anti-politically correct agenda to a party-wide approach is tricky – not least because unleashing incompetent politicians and radical activists on such an agenda could lead to embarrassing consequences. You can already imagine the Mail on Sunday’s story of party activists’ Facebook messages. Like Trump, UKIP might just conclude that all the pain is worth it but they will need to be careful.
Fourthly, and this is one for the medium term, the party will be looking at how to continue to recruit greater numbers of credible Northern spokespeople. They already have some but if they are going to take Labour on in the North, they need more of them. Ideally, they would recruit a former Labour politician to act as an additional figurehead in the North. Either way, there isn’t going to be much in it for them to deploy people on TV that sound Southern and Tory.
Fifthly, the party will be looking at how to become a serious governing alternative to Labour in the North. In doing so, they will need to find a way of training their elected representatives more seriously. Electoral success will bring governing responsibility. They need to do whatever they can to ensure that people are ready to take on executive positions.
Finally, Nuttall will be thinking about how to handle Nigel Farage. Farage endlessly claims to be stepping away but it’s clear he loves the limelight too much. He can’t be ignored, or slowly shuffled out, or indeed managed in any way. I suspect Nuttall will just try to stay close and friendly to Farage and manage the party as best he can.
It’s easy to write UKIP off. There are many incompetent people involved in the party, as the senior leadership would admit. But the reality is they are now highly competitive in the North of England, so incompetence has only held them back to a point. But they will need a more professional approach than they have displayed hitherto. If Nutall can deliver that, amid Labour’s slow suicide, it’s hard to know where they’ll end up.