Andrew Whitaker: Cautionary tale of the Ukip threat

DESPITE internal strife, Farage’s party is likely to prove troublesome in the EU referendum debate, writes Andrew Whitaker

Nigel Farage could yet face a leadership challenge, but Ukips hard-right arguments will still be heard. Picture: Getty Images

A year ago Nigel Farage was on our television screens virtually non-stop telling the nation at every beat that Ukip was on course to burst the existing political system and make gains never seen before from a non-established party.

But with more than half a year passed since May’s general election and Ukip’s only MP telling his leader that his time is up and that the anti-European Union party needs a fresh face, it all looks ­radically different.

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Of course, Ukip would point to the nature of the UK’s first-past-the-post system to explain why it failed to make the breakthrough Farage so often predicted his party would make.

Yet one way or another, Ukip looks somewhat of a busted flush, with the party, which had a number of high-profile incidents – including some of its members being caught making racist comments – turning in on itself through serial squabbling.

It’s tempting to dismiss Ukip as being a party full of cranks that will become increasingly irrelevant, particularly if the in-out vote on Britain membership of the EU goes against it.

But with parties of the hard-right such as Ukip that base so much of their appeal on an anti-immigrant pitch, it’s always worth their opponents adopting a cautionary approach. As the Tory government continues to pursue austerity policies ever harder and poverty worsens, parties of Ukip’s persuasion can never be entirely written off.

Some of the most notorious Ukip incidents – the party member caught on a TV documentary making racist comments about the appearance of Afro-Caribbean people, and the MEP David Coburn referring to SNP minister Humza Yousaf as the convicted terrorist Abu Hamza – do make sections of its ranks look somewhat like cranks.

But it’s perhaps worth looking at the rise of Donald Trump in the United States with his repeated anti-Muslim comments that would not have been out of place in 1930s Germany, particularly those that suggested all Muslims should by law have to register with state authorities.

It doesn’t take a great deal of thought to remember when that type of idea was last mooted.

There’s also the far-right National Front in France, which, despite failing to win control of any regions in the final round of local elections, polled a historically high score in the first round when it was ranked as the most popular party in the country.

Despite the hardline rhetoric of Farage and much of his party, particularly his display of inhumanity in the TV election debate when he suggested those from overseas with HIV should not be allowed access to the NHS, Ukip is not a fascist or Nazi organisation.

But at a time when right-wing populism is on the rise, whether it’s Ukip’s anti-EU and anti-immigration variety or the more overtly racist nature of Trump and the French NF, those on the Left should be prepared to confront a distasteful brand of politics.

It may well be the in-out UK referendum on the EU will see Ukip, despite its diminished status, play a critical role in the push for Britain to pull out of Europe.

Although Ukip is unlikely to fare well in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh assembly or London mayoral elections - the main UK electoral contests in 2016 – Farage’s party has already been handed an open invitation to campaign alongside the Tory Right for a vote to leave the EU.

Former defence secretary Liam Fox has made it clear he would be perfectly comfortable campaigning on the same platform as Ukip and speaking alongside its leaders at campaign rallies.

So while Ukip may be less of an electoral threat than it was just a year ago, the party will have a prominent public platform for some time to come (depending on when the EU vote is held).

It may well be that it was this consideration that drove Ukip’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, who defected from the Tories, to call for a change in leadership, believing that Farage was simply too polarising a figure who may put off those in two minds about how to cast their referendum vote.

Whether Farage stays as leader or not, the language from many within Ukip’s ranks is likely to be pretty hardline throughout what may be a lengthy run-up to the referendum.

Expect anti-immigration rhetoric that gets more and more extreme, with Eastern Europeans among those who may be on the receiving end of “the Kippers’” wrath despite them making a huge contribution to UK society.

Ukip wants to severely restrict the rights of citizens from other EU nations, such as Poland and Romania, to come to live and work in the UK.

There could also be anti-welfare rhetoric, anti-trade union and employment rights comments, with Ukip and the Tory Right forming an alliance about as reactionary as it’s possible to get.

It’s this that those on the Left and centre-left of British politics, as well as those in the trade unions and civic society, have to confront.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum on Europe, Ukip is unlikely to liquidate itself principally due to the profile it has and the access to public money its gets through the election of councillors as well as European parliamentarians.

It may well be that the EU referendum vote, whenever it is eventually held, will be the last hurrah for a party that thought earlier this year its time had come, with the likes of Farage suggesting it was on course to become the third party at Westminster.

During a probably lengthy campaign, Ukip and its allies on the hard-right of the Conservative Party have the potential to preside over all kinds of scare stories about the UK being “overrun” by immigrants if it remains in the EU. Which is why figures on the political Left, such as former cabinet minister Alan Johnson, the leader of Labour’s campaign to remain in the EU, need to have a strategy lined up that focuses on social justice and employment rights to confront the sort of campaign Ukip may wage and the divisions the anti-EU party may attempt to stoke up over issues such as immigration in working-class areas of the country.