Paul Nuttall MEP is on a mission to “erase Labour”Euro Realist Newsletter

As Paul Andrew Nuttall MEP was duly being elected leader of the UK Independence Party, with a whopping 62.6 per cent of the vote, a Stewart Lee comedy routine – from 2014 – was fast approaching viral status. In it, Lee mounts a scathing attack on UKIP’s future leader: “My name is Paul Nuttals [sic] of the UKIPs and I say we need to ensure the brightest and best Bulgarians should stay in Bulgaria and make it economically prosperous instead of coming to the UK to make tea and coffee…” As funny as I found Lee’s deliberately poor scouse drone, the routine made me long for a time when the British media could afford not to take UKIP seriously. Despite UKIP having only one MP, Brexit has shown the extent to which the party has changed the course of British politics.

Since his election, Nuttall has made it absolutely clear that he intends to “erase Labour”. This is not just fighting talk. With the referendum won, UKIP have looked in danger of drifting out of the political spotlight. The summer has been tumultuous, as various factions have vied for control of the party. By clearly stating his political strategy, Nuttall is doing his best to unite the party behind him as quickly as possible. Moreover, Nuttall, who has been an MEP for North West England since 2009, appears uniquely placed to challenge Labour in the party’s post-industrial heartlands.

Steward Lee on UKIP and Paul NuttallCraig Dawson

Right wing populist parties have rallied around the bombastic personalities of a leader with ‘the common touch’. While Nigel Farage may have an unmatched ability to look at home with a pint in hand, he remains a divisive figure not just because of his questionable rhetoric but also due to his public school background and home counties demeanour. Nuttall faces no such issues. He is keen to play up his working class roots and crucially, when he says he will turn UKIP into “the patriotic voice of working people”, you get the sense that he means it.

This is in stark contrast to how UKIP operated under Nigel Farage. In Farage’s own words: “my aim in being in politics was to get Britain out of the European Union.” At times it has felt as though UKIP’s move to attract blue collar voters has been subsidiary to this overarching goal. With Brexit now achieved, Nuttall has been given licence to use UKIP’s existing machinery to forge a national alliance between disenfranchised former Labour voters and anti-immigration social conservatives.

As we have seen across the Western World there are deep-seated grievances that could render such a coalition electorally viable. Indeed, the ongoing debate about ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit might provide the single issue capable of uniting large swathes of the population under UKIP’s purple banner. Effectively, the longer the government dithers over single market access, the longer Nuttall has to rebuild the party in his image.

For obvious reasons, this has many people in the Labour party worried. Not least Dan Jarvis, the MP for Barnsley Central, who warns that “the UKIP fox is in the Labour henhouse and we have got to make a decision about what we want to do about that fox”. Labour’s problem is that there is little internal agreement about what exactly they should be doing.

I recently attended Blue Labour conference, a faction within the party who argue that Labour can fend off UKIP with a few shrewd concessions to social conservatism. Around the conference, there was a sense of despondency. No one felt as though such concessions would be forthcoming under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Going forward, the party must be careful to respond to the challenge posed by UKIP in a way that doesn’t alienate the Corbyn supporters who increasingly make up the party’s base.

Undoubtedly, Paul Nuttall is personally capable of utilising his working class credentials to exacerbate Labour’s internal divisions. However, it must not be forgotten that, as a party, UKIP is not necessarily the obvious choice for a lot of the voters Nuttall is keen to attract. A lot of UKIP members and activists are merely Thatcherites in self-imposed exile due to the Tories’ ‘soft stances’ on the welfare state and the European Union. Indeed as recently as 2014, Nuttall was vociferously advocating cutting the top rate of tax to 40 per cent and blanket privatisation of the NHS. Too sharp a turn towards social conservatism and statist economics could see these people return to a Tory party that is already making overtures in their direction.

The fundamental problem for Nuttall going forward is Britain’s First Past the Post electoral system. This means that despite Labour’s issues, UKIP’s most likely pick-ups are still in pro-Leave constituencies currently held by a Conservative party which, under Theresa May, seems more responsive to the concerns of social conservatives. Moreover, there is still some way to go for Nuttall to successfully detoxify the ’kipper brand.

Until then, the party is unlikely to win in seats where voters are prepared to tactically vote against what they consider to be ugly nativism. Given these major barriers, the question facing Nuttall is whether he’d be content to allow the Tories to be the prime beneficiaries of the current wave of populism. If Nuttall wants to see UKIP become a truly cohesive force rather than a Conservative Party pressure group, he must be unafraid to commit precious resources and airtime to push for PR.

Stewart Lee’s routine is funny because it exaggerates the notion that UKIP are essentially a regressive party, and in 2014 this was largely true. Brexit aside, it seemed as though UKIP had foregone adopting a coherent policy programme in favour of loudly calling for the ‘good old days’, a time when men were men, people smoked in pubs and British culture was undiluted by mass immigration. The routine is also funny because it is utterly ridiculous.

The problem now is that 2016 saw ridiculous political events occur all too regularly. After a mad year, the party and their new leader are determined to prove that the UKIP joke isn’t funny anymore