So, Ukip is finished. So says Matthew Parris in the Times this morning, as well as Marina Hyde in the Guardian – who takes Paul Nuttall’s declaration that he is ‘going nowhere’ in a slightly different way that he intended. The emerging narrative of Thursday’s by-elections is that Labour had an appalling night from which it will take years to recover, but that Ukip is finished for good. Even Farage has given up on his baby. As Matthew puts it: ‘Ukip’s driving spirits are concluding that the time approaches for the party to die’.
I have no capital invested in Ukip. I don’t care a great deal whether it dies or thrives. But I can see there is one thing wrong with the above narrative: it is not consistent with the figures. Yes, of course when you put your leader up in a by-election, the bookies briefly expect him to win and then he doesn’t it is going to be a disappointment. Yet that disguises the fact that Ukip actually increased its share of the vote in Stoke compared with the 2015 general election, from 22.7 per cent to 24.7 per cent. That was an increase almost identical to that of the Conservatives, while Labour’s share fell from 39.3 per cent to 37 per cent.
By the standards of by-elections, remarkably few votes changed hands in Stoke. While Stoke on Trent Central might have seemed on the face of it to be a perfect Ukip target seat – declining industrial heartland, working class and heavily pro-Leave – Ukip were always going to have an uphill struggle because the Conservatives were already quite strong in the constituency. They were only a little way behind Ukip in 2015. Given that the Conservatives have since stolen Ukip’s defining policy – leaving the EU – it is remarkable that Ukip’s vote held up so well.
There has been a long tradition of upstart parties in British politics having one good election but then imploding quickly thereafter. One thinks of the SDP, who came close to supplanting Labour in the popular vote in the 1983 general election but retreated thereafter. There were the Greens, who won 15 per cent of the vote in the 1989 European elections but rapidly faded – other parties merely had to wander slightly onto the Greens’ turf to convince voters that their ecological concerns were being met and there was no need for them to vote Green. Then there was the BNP in the 2009 European elections – a party which happily collapsed soon afterwards, as soon as it then leader Nick Griffin was allowed onto the BBC, in fact, and showed that even the acceptable face of the far right party was a pretty unappealing individual.
There are many who would like to think that Ukip is conforming to the trend, and that the 2015 general election will prove to be its high water mark. But they are fooling themselves. Ukip’s vote has proved to be remarkably robust. Does the party still have a purpose, now that the Tories have taken its defining policy? Maybe not, if Brexit goes through as promised. But there are enough Ken Clarkes in the Conservative party to convince Ukip voters that their party is still a very useful deterrent in the event of any wobbling on leaving the EU.