In my assessment of UKIP this time last year, I suggested that “Next May’s devolved election offers UKIP the realistic prospect of another significant step forward, by establishing a significant elected presence in the National Assembly for Wales.” Well, that was one prediction, at least, that ‘mystic Rog’ managed to get right.
But in truth that wasn’t something that was very difficult to predict. Given where UKIP had been polling in National Assembly voting intentions since about mid-2014, it was always very likely that the party would win multiple seats in the Assembly. Indeed, as in the two previous Assembly elections, UKIP actually somewhat under-performed their poll rating in May. The difference in 2016, compared to previous years, was that this time they were under-performing from a much higher base. Getting an actual vote on the day about three points below their poll rating was much as the party had done in 2011. But then, that had meant UKIP missing out on any representation in the Assembly at all; in 2016, it meant the party winning seven seats rather than the ten – two in each region – which had looked possible.
The winning of its first seven seats in the Assembly – a greater number than had ever been won at a single election by the Liberal Democrats, we might note – was clearly an important step forward for UKIP. For the first time ever, they had won a significant elected presence in a domestic UK legislature. Yet this advance was made – we should also note – with a lower share of the vote than had been won by UKIP in Wales in the previous year’s general election. UKIP’s 13.6 per cent of the Welsh vote in 2015 was not matched in 2016 either on the constituency vote, where the party scored 12.5 per cent, or the list ballot, where they achieved 13.0 per cent. (Much of the small difference in UKIP’s vote share between the two ballots can be accounted for by their failure to stand candidates in two north Wales constituency seats, Aberconwy and Arfon). The graph of UKIP’s vote share in Wales is not moving uniformly upwards.
Since the election – well, life in UKIP never appears to be dull, and there have been major developments within the party. Nigel Farage stood down as party leader – again; there was then a leadership election, won by Dianne James; and then less than three weeks later we saw her resignation, and the return of Nigel Farage as leader – again. We are assured that the third coming of Farage (or is it the fourth?) will be only temporary. But the new leadership contest had an interesting start last week, with the apparent front-runner ending up in hospital, in the wake of what appears, even by UKIP standards, to have been an exceptionally robust exchange of policy differences among some of the party’s MEPs in Strasbourg. Meanwhile in Wales, Nathan Gill was thanked by his fellow newly-elected AMs for leading the party’s Assembly election campaign by the somewhat unconventional means of being deposed from leadership within the chamber by Neil Hamilton. Mr Hamilton, in our next three Welsh Political Barometer polls, then proceeded to score some of the lowest popularity ratings ever recorded by any democratic political leader ever measured. His status as an electoral asset to the party in Wales remains non-obvious.
But by far the most important event for UKIP, surely, occurred on June 23rd. The victory for Leave in the EU referendum was the fulfilment of UKIP’s historic mission. Whatever one’s views on the outcome of the referendum, or indeed the campaign that proceeded it, it was an event of considerable historic importance. And UKIP must receive a substantial amount of the credit – or, as some would see it, blame – for the Brexit vote. Only a few years ago it seemed implausible that the UK might hold an EU membership referendum, never mind that those wishing to see the UK outside the EU might win such a vote. The political pressure exerted by UKIP, particularly on the Conservative party, was a very important part of the process which led to the referendum being held, and won (or lost).
But what now? UKIP’s historic mission has been achieved – or, at least, is well on the road to being achieved. So what is the point of UKIP? Why have a UK Independence Party if, by your own main measure of independence, it has been achieved and it not likely to be under threat? UKIP support in recent years has not been only about the EU. That is the core issue for many party members and activists, but certainly not the only important one to many UKIP voters. Also important have been social issues – UKIP supporters tend to be socially conservative – and, most of all, immigration.
But without the EU issue to form the central raison d’être for the party, what will continue to hold this otherwise fractious entity together, and give it any sense of direction? UKIP could seek to continue to be a voice for anti-globalisation and socially conservative voters – and there are enough such voters to win the party a fairly significant share of the vote, including in Wales. But Theresa May’s Conservative party are making an obvious, none-too-subtle, attempt to reclaim this ground for the Conservative party. The political space on the radical right could be squeezed considerably. And will such a political agenda really be sufficient to give a sense of purpose to activists and members around the UK, in the way that the EU was? This seems doubtful.
Meanwhile in Wales – can they be an effective Assembly group? This also seems somewhat doubtful. There has already been one fracture in the group – indeed one that has led to the extraordinary position of the party’s Welsh leader not being a member of the party’s National Assembly group, but sitting independently. It would hardly be a shock if this turns out not to be the last split within the UKIP Assembly contingent.
The last few years have seen major advances for UKIP. It has made striking electoral progress, and witnessed one achievement of major, historic importance. It will, however, be a substantial challenge for the party to maintain this progress, particularly with UKIP’s political space being squeezed by the Conservatives. UKIP have established themselves as a significant political entity in Welsh politics in the last few years. But remaining so may be even more difficult.