Thoughts on UKIP’s By-election Defeat in Stoke-on-Trent

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Recently I published an article (Have the Media Been Conditioning Us for a Paul Nuttall Victory in Stoke-on-Trent?) which debated whether negative coverage of UKIP leader Paul Nuttall would work to his favour in becoming the party’s first leader in the House of Commons. I outlined the precedent for such a scenario by citing Donald Trump’s Presidential victory and how the media’s less than favourable publicity of him failed to deter Americans from voting Republican.

This was not the case for Paul Nuttall. His bid to become MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central failed on Thursday night, beaten by Labour candidate Gareth Snell. Only 36.7% of registered voters cast their ballot (21,200 out of a possible 57,701), with Snell taking 37% of the vote compared to Nuttall on 24.7%. In the end Labour’s share of the vote was down 2.2% compared to the general election of 2015, whereas UKIP achieved a small gain of 2.1%. This suggests that despite a slew of negative headlines surrounding Nuttall over the past four weeks – likely a hindrance to his campaign – it was not sufficient for UKIP’s share of the vote to collapse as a result.

Before the by-election, Stoke-on-Trent was dubbed the ‘Brexit Capital of Britain‘, given that 69% voted to leave the European Union last year. And yet, on the night, the staunchly pro remain Liberal Democrats saw their share of the vote increase by 5.7% from 2015. The Conservative vote was also up by 1.8%, despite them having publicly advocated remaining in the EU.

The landscape in which this election took place differs somewhat from the EU referendum eight months ago. Back then I believe we saw a majority of people vote for key sentiments of UKIP (particularly over issues like immigration and border controls) through the vehicle of Brexit, safe in the knowledge that it would not affect the balance of power in Westminster. By not transferring their support for leaving the EU to UKIP at the ballot box, voters avoid the potential moral hazard of promoting them to actual positions of political power. It was traditional working class areas that came out in support of leaving – areas that have been accustomed to voting Labour at a general election.

Perhaps part of what we saw in Stoke was a mix of Labour supporters keeping to tradition, with others choosing not to endorse any candidate. The low turnout points to many opting to stay home, those who no longer wish to support Labour but cannot countenance moving over to UKIP.

Because the EU referendum was a separate issue, it gave voters licence to reflect more honestly how they felt at the time, regardless of their political persuasion. For example, if you’re someone who has backed Labour for thirty years and voted to leave the EU, transferring your worries and perceptions over to UKIP on a domestic level is a hard sell.

Also interesting is how weeks before the referendum, figures were released showing immigration to the UK rising to 333,000, the second highest number on record. This undoubtedly convinced a number of people that David Cameron’s Conservative government was failing to reduce levels of immigration, thus persuading them to vote leave.

Contrast that with figures released on the morning of the by-election, which showed net migration having fallen by 49,000 in the twelve months to last September. It’s unlikely that this had a hand in influencing the outcome in Stoke, but what it does show is how when figures are falling there is less clamour amongst the electorate.

The atmosphere is not as febrile as it was before the EU vote last June. The article 50 bill for Brexit will soon be written into law after approval from the House of Lords, which will officially begin the process of leaving the union. More and more MP’s from every corner of the commons are promoting the line of, ‘Brexit means Brexit‘, a phrase that I think many are starting to invest faith in. We have seen MP’s openly detest the idea of leaving the European Union, but in the same breath accept the result and subtly change the tone of the conversation to ‘getting the best deal for Britain‘.

This leaves UKIP in a quandary. Their level of support has so far not grown off the back of the Brexit vote. Now that people are perceiving a concerted effort within Parliament to position the country nearer to leaving the EU, it reduces the impetus of people to show their disdain at the polling booth. Leaving the EU is estimated to take two years and will be completed in the spring of 2019. Whether that timeline is honoured is far too early to predict.

There is one aspect in particular that merits closer attention though. If the Brexit process is relatively clean and the UK signs a trade deal with the EU, the necessity for UKIP in its current guise is not immediately obvious. So much of their reputation and appeal lies in their stance on immigration and their promotion of national sovereignty. However, if the UK leaves the EU without a signed trade deal – a possibility reflected by Theresa May when she says, ‘No deal is better than a bad deal‘ – then a chaotic separation would likely damage UKIP more than a cordial one.

It may prove to be that UKIP’s greatest success came with nothing tangible to show for it on the home front. Brexit in itself represents a vehicle to a greater end. Within that vehicle lies UKIP, who through Nigel Farage have managed to cultivate support for leaving the EU. Therefore, is UKIP’s purpose fulfilled should the UK successfully part company with the union?

Paul Nuttall is on the record as saying he wants to replace the Labour party as the political representative of the working class. Labour’s defeat in Copeland (a seat they had held since 1935) moments after their victory in Stoke emphasised how they are degenerating in their self proclaimed heartlands. Copeland represented the first time Labour had lost a seat to a Conservative government in a by-election since 1982.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was his usual incredulous self afterwards. The defeat in Copeland was due to ‘a special set of circumstances‘ – namely Corbyn’s anti nuclear stance in a constituency where there is high employment in the nuclear industry. The victory in Stoke on the other hand was a ‘defeat for the politics of hate‘.

UKIP still have the potential to make inroads into Labour’s traditional working class base. Labour’s loss in Copeland has placed further pressure on Jeremy Corbyn, but not to the extent of him resigning or being ousted as leader.

Back in December I wrote an article about UKIP potentially decimating Labour heartlands come the next general election, slated for 2020. In it I said,

Likely in my view is that Corbyn is leading Labour to its own destruction. Many attempts were made to oust him, to the point where following the ‘Brexit’ result over 90% of his shadow cabinet deserted him. Yet he survived to eventually gain an increased majority in his second leadership contest within a year. Calls for him to resign have since completely evaporated, with the Labour narrative now behind Corbyn taking the party into the next general election. For the purpose of victory or the purpose of destruction?

Whichever occurs, ‘Brexit’ will be a decisive vehicle in what plays out in British politics in 2017.

Unless a dramatic shift occurs in how Jeremy Corbyn is perceived by the electorate, his reign as party leader will culminate in a general election defeat and the Labour party having collapsed to below 200 seats.

The question is whether UKIP or the Conservatives would be the beneficiary of such a collapse. What is beyond doubt is how Brexit will play a deciding factor in the make up of British politics leading up to the 2020 election and beyond.

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