How does a political party end? Does it abruptly realise that it is no longer viable or does it struggle on for years losing elections? The UK Independence party may soon have to make the choice.
Less than two years after its referendum victory, the populist outfit is braced for a mauling in next month’s council elections. It is contesting only one in eight of the available seats and is not expected to win more than a handful.
Even Nigel Farage, Ukip’s talisman, appears to have lost interest after his protégé, Henry Bolton, was ousted as party leader in February. Mr Farage has tweeted more than 150 times since then, without mentioning Ukip once.
Yet in Swindon, a Brexit-backing town in west England, Ukip is trying to dig in. The local party proudly announced this month that it would contest all 19 council seats on offer.
“I always said the referendum would be like the Battle of El Alamein in the second world war. I knew it would be a turning point but the war wouldn’t be over,” said Martin Costello, a civil engineer and Ukip candidate.
“This is the chance to give the establishment a bloody nose. Ukip is going through a rough patch, but if we lose Ukip, we lose Brexit.”
Of Ukip’s 19 candidates in Swindon, one has withdrawn and four are members of the Costello family. Two others are a married couple: Aubrey Attwater, 77, and his wife Sheila, 76, who moved to Swindon after living for more than a decade in Crete, and were surprised at the number of foreign languages spoken.
I always said the referendum would be like the Battle of El Alamein
“There’s a need for common sense. We don’t know quite where our position is, but we think we know what people want,” Ms Attwater said. She and her husband, former Liberal Democrats who describe themselves as “rebels”, receive much of their news from the Russian news network RT.
In Swindon, Ukip is promising to represent ordinary people and to keep council tax low. It is the only party opposed to the building of a modern art gallery, which is expected to cost £22m, including £5m from the council.
“What the bloody hell Swindon needs with an art gallery? I can’t imagine anybody going there,” said Mr Attwater.
“Who’s going to visit it?” said Mr Costello. “The roads [in the town centre] aren’t designed to cope with lots of traffic . . . If they do think we should have it, then they need to hold more referendums on these sorts of things.” He has proposed instead using a different building to house the gallery, an option that the council said would cost even more.
Ukip finished second in six Swindon wards in 2014, the last time they were contested. But its national poll ratings have slumped since then, and concern over immigration — one of Ukip’s strongest issues — has ebbed. Nationally 32 per cent of voters say that immigration is one of the three most important issues facing the UK, down from 56 per cent before the Brexit vote, according to YouGov.
In Swindon, “I would be very surprised if they didn’t come fourth or fifth in every ward”, said David Renard, the Conservative council leader. Mrs Attwater said the aim is “to remind people we haven’t gone away”.
Ukip’s defenders point to the fact that its membership has risen for the first time in years, after a financial appeal to help it avoid bankruptcy. The Swindon branch had “about £50 in the bank account” after losing both its deposits in the last general election but now has about £1,000, said Mr Attwater, the treasurer.
The party was pretty well organised until May last year, then things changed; it seemed to lose direction
But the problem is that in many areas where it used to be competitive, Ukip has collapsed. In Hartlepool, where decades of economic challenges have fed a sense of general disillusion, Ukip scored its best result of the 2015 general election and was the main opposition to Labour on the council. In January, five of its six councillors resigned from the party over the leadership scandal, and became independents. Now the remaining Ukip councillor, Tom Hind, is stepping down. Ukip will not contest any of the 10 wards.
John Tennant, former Ukip group leader, said that he is sad at the party’s local demise. “I put a lot of years into the party to raise the profile,” he said. “The party was pretty well organised until May last year, then things changed; it seemed to lose direction.”
Under Mr Farage’s leadership, he says, “rightwing elements” were put to one side. But Paul Nuttall, the leader in 2016-17, and Gerard Batten, the current leader, both focused their message on Islam. “I just can’t put my name to that,” said Mr Tennant. His group of Hartlepool independents will oppose Labour. “We are independent but feel politically homeless,” he said.
Two of Ukip’s last three elected leaders have also left the party: Mr Bolton set up the OneNation party after being ousted in February, although it has not yet registered with the Electoral Commission and so cannot stand candidates. Diane James, an MEP who led Ukip in September 2016, is now as an independent. Both have said Ukip is at risk of dying.
In last year’s council elections, Ukip won just one seat out of nearly 5,000 contested, losing 145 councillors in areas from Cornwall to Yorkshire. In Swindon, however, Mr Costello is hopeful. “Everyone loves an underdog,” he said. “I know for a fact Ukip will be here in three years’ time.”