The last fortnight has been bruising for UKIP leader Gerard Batten. He faced (but survived) a vote of no confidence at the party’s National Executive Committee and has managed to lose three of UKIP’s biggest names – Nigel Farage, Paul Nuttall and Suzanne Evans. Farage, Nuttall and Evans quit the party after Batten’s decision to hire far-right activist Tommy Robinson – real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – as an adviser on “rape gangs” and “prison reform”.
While Batten is battling on, it is clear that UKIP as a political party is in crisis; it is failing to remain relevant in the post-Brexit political landscape. Over the last two years, the party has lacked a clear identity or purpose, and has struggled to attract much media or public interest since Farage stepped down as leader in 2016.
And so in order to try and maintain his party’s relevance, Batten decided to recruit Robinson, despite very loud and public warnings from many within his party, including the party’s executive committee. As Farage quit, he expressed concern that Batten and Robinson’s “new” UKIP could be heading in a “violent and thuggish” direction. Indeed, under Batten, the party does appear to be moving onto new political ground, fielding fewer candidates in elections and instead focusing on grass roots street activity.
While Robinson may supply the charisma and public profile that Batten lacks, accusations have followed that the party is heading in a “perverse direction”.
Taking to the streets
Batten seems to have decided that to keep UKIP in the public eye he needs to try and utilise the street tactics that Robinson deployed as leader of the English Defence League (EDL). On December 9, thousands attended a “Brexit Betrayal” march in central London, which was organised by Batten and Robinson. Robinson was well received by the crowd, which chanted “Oh, Tommy, Tommy!” while he stood beside a UKIP banner. It should be noted, however, that a rival anti-racism protest on the same day claimed a far greater attendance.
But as UKIP attempts to harness Robinson’s knowledge of grass roots street activism, Batten’s party is also positioning itself within the fold of the extreme right. At the “Brexit Betrayal” march, UKIP flags flew alongside those of Generation Identity – a pan-European movement that seeks to protect the “indigenous population” by preserving “the cultural heritage that has characterised our countries”.
While Generation Identity has struggled to make much of an impact in the UK, it would now appear that Batten is happy for UKIP to rub shoulders with the burgeoning movement. In its battle to remain relevant, it seems UKIP is attempting to harness far right ethno-nationalist identity politics – something of a growth area.
Just four years ago, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin described UKIP as “one of the most successful challenges to the established political parties in modern British history”. Since the June 2016 Brexit referendum, however, the party has lost political momentum. Due to a combination of the UK’s “first past the post” electoral system and a perceived case of “mission accomplished” following its EU referendum victory, UKIP has since made a negligible impact on Brexit politics.
So what’s next?
Batten, who is the fourth person to lead the party since Farage quit in 2016, stated early on in his leadership that he wanted UKIP to become a “radical, populist party”. And with tensions over Brexit reaching boiling point and a lack of national political leadership to cool them, the time is ripe for harvesting the public’s anger and encouraging street-based activity.
Using UKIP’s anti-Europe brand with Robinson’s street politics won’t win elections but it may get feet on the street and provide UKIP with a reason for its continuing existence. The “Brexit Betrayal” rally, for example, brought thousands of angry men and women out onto the streets, with demonstrators on both sides hurling insults at each other. One man even brought a portable gallows with him, complete with noose – for Theresa May the “traitor”.
As Paul Oakley, UKIP’s immigration spokesman, took to the stage, he said (bizarrely paraphrasing The Terminator film): “We can’t be bargained with, we can’t be reasoned with, we don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.” UKIP’s battle to stay relevant is off to an uncompromising start.