UKIP and Lessons in Pyrrhic Victory

It seems unimaginable. Despite extensive media coverage about the growth of far-right and populist parties across the West, some of these most effective parties are imploding. Case in point: The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). After securing a favourable Brexit vote, UKIP is collapsing under the weight of its own victory.

Why? Because despite its best efforts to create a complete policy manifesto, UKIP is a one-issue party.

It’s one issue? European Union membership. Once this balloon popped, UKIP’s grab bag of policies—opposition to privatization in health care, limits on immigration, and state funding for grammar schools—just wasn’t enough to maintain the support it had built over previous elections.

Furthermore, UKIP’s success made Brexit a primary election issue across the political spectrum. UKIP opened the door for establishment parties to make their own pro-Brexit promises. UKIP’s success in establishing Brexit as a policy all major parties would eventually agree with, destroyed the only argument the party had in its favour — that it was addressing an issue the establishment was ignoring.

But UKIP is as much a single-candidate party as it is a single-issue party. As with most populist movements today, its leader’s personal brand is as powerful as the movement itself. Former leader Nigel Farage is an icon of populist politics. His name was synonymous with UKIP for much of its existence. Repeated attempts (in 2009 and in 2015) to leave his position as leader of the party left UKIP in shambles and forced him to return to his post. Now, however, Farage claims to be gone for good. This time, it sounds like he means it. He has relocated to the United States and has seen his marriage collapse with revelations of his own infidelity.

Since his departure, UKIP has been thrown into chaos yet again. An initial leadership election in the wake of Farage’s catapulted Diane James as leader. Less than three weeks later she resigned the position, citing a lack of support among the membership and caucus. Paul Nuttal, long-time deputy leader of the party under Farage, won the subsequent leadership race and took the helm of UKIP as it entered the 2016 general election.

Nuttal’s leadership proved only marginally less divisive than James’. UKIP’s only MP, former-Conservative Douglas Carswell, had announced he would not seek re-election. He threw his support behind incumbent prime minister Theresa May. Nuttal attempted to shift the party’s policy towards left-wing economics despite his own libertarian beliefs. Despite the tact, UKIP continued to lose support week-over-week.

Which is stunning, when you think about it.

In 2015, UKIP became the largest British party in the EU parliament by winning more than 12% of the vote. It had done so by building a coalition of disenfranchised pre-Blair Old Labour voters and anti-EU Thatcherites.

Then Brexit happened.

And in 2016, UKIP’s coalition has little reason to return their support to UKIP. Jeremy Corbyn promised to follow through on Brexit. Theresa May campaigned that only a Conservative majority government would uphold Brexit. There was little reason for voters on the left or right to back UKIP. Why bother? Similarly-minded parties far more likely to form government were now on board.

UKIP’s collapse teaches us the fragility of populist parties. Parties that appeal to specific issues (like EU membership or immigration) lack the broad appeal of big-tent parties like the Conservatives or Labour. The appeal to fringe issues can generate significant support but only when it appears the establishment is ignoring these issues. When establishment parties adopt similar rhetoric and policies, support for fringe groups evaporates.

In hindsight, it’s obvious that UKIP was hurting. It didn’t have the charismatic leadership of Nigel Farage. With Farage out of the picture, it couldn’t generate the same volume of earned media attention. With Brexit in the rear-view mirror, it lacked a meaningful soapbox. Without a soapbox, it couldn’t regain the levels of support it has seen pre-Brexit. Achieving Brexit was the death knell for UKIP. UKIP is an acronym for UK Independence Party, after all. Once the UK became “independent” of the EU, there was little reason for voters to maintain their support.

UKIP’s struggle is a harbinger of things to come for other far-right populist parties in Europe. When politicians appeal to base emotions on specific, hot-button issues, they expend political capital that could otherwise be spent growing their movement to appeal to a broad range of voters. More importantly, when those same hot-button issues are resolved, their base weakens. Whatever grab bag of policies the party supports isn’t enough.

As mainstream parties in Europe and across the Western world address issues like the EU, immigration, and multiculturalism, they will appeal to voters who previously backed radical parties. As one-issue parties like UKIP prove the electoral popularity of populist programmes, major parties will increasingly adopt their proposals. This, in turn, will hollow out support for fringe parties and re-establish support for mainstream ones. In the end, while their proposals may make their way into legislation, the fringe parties themselves have little future in government.