May 14, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
So, Nigel Farage is back. Already.
Despite the media’s spluttering over it being a “backtrack” on his promise to resign should he not win his seat in the House of Commons, I believe that it is actually the correct decision for UKIP, although not without its’ risks.
Let’s start with a fact, last week’s election was a quite astonishing success in every single measure other than seats in the House of Commons. The party got four times as many votes as they did in 2010, with almost 4 million people (12.8% of the electorate) voting for them. They managed to gain over 120 second places in constituencies, which gives them a proper platform to build on for the 2020 election. They averaged 17% of the vote in Northern constituencies, making them the alternative to Labour in those seats in a way that must be taken account by that party in any leadership election and discussion about their future.
Yes, they won only one seat, but that’s the First-Past-the-Post election system for you. That UKIP would have won 83 seats under proportional representation shows how much support they won. I would imagine that had a few more UKIP politicians got into the House of Commons, Farage’s resignation might have stuck. But the only one who did was Douglas Carswell, and he may be Eurosceptic but he is not against immigration and is far more socially liberal than the natural Ukipper, so may not have been a good representative for them. The other options – Paul Nuttall, Steve Crowther, Suzanne Evans and Steven Woolfe amoung them – just lack the experience and recognition that Farage has, which is perhaps why a Survation poll just after Farage’s resignation said that seven out of ten UKIP voters would vote for him to be leader again.
The most important reason that UKIP’s National Executive Committee rejected Farage’s resignation is that now there is a Conservative majority, there is definitely going to be an IN/OUT referendum on the EU. The whole point of UKIP’s creation was to campaign for that, and now they have it, and they need to be able to put the argument as strong as possible. Farage proved against Nick Clegg in the debates they had last year (click here and here to watch those) that he can debate with the best of them on Europe, and so he will be a formidable campaigner just when they need it for the UK to leave the EU.
But herein lies the risk. The OUT campaign will not win if a vote for OUT is a vote for Farage. There are plenty of Conservative voters who would vote OUT and I think there are also some Labour voters, particularly in the North and East, who would also vote OUT given the chance. But if Farage is the figurehead of the campaign, it may be more of a disadvantage as he is unlikely to be able to manage to deliver the more moderate message that could attract these other voters. The OUT campaign will not win just on immigration, they need to push more on the effect on jobs, and possibly on sovereignty, but if it is just immigration they don’t have a chance. Farage is very much stuck in his ways, the ways that got UKIP designated a major party by OFCOM and attracted one in eight voters. For the UK to leave the EU the OUT campaign needs one in two voters, and Farage may be a reason they won’t.
Looking into the future, UKIP needs to build up an activist base that is much younger than the elderly lot who huffed and puffed their way around target constituencies in the past month. This may not happen with Farage as leader. Importantly, they do not have the offer anymore to Tory MPs of a safe passage back into Parliament should they defect, not after what happened to Mark Reckless anyway.
So, understandable why Farage is back, but not without its’ risks for the party’s long term future.