Ukip has not wiped out the far right, it’s given it a new home

Don't laugh off new leader Paul Nuttall: he has argued for NHS privatisation and capital punishment, and bangs on about the flag of St George and the rebirth of what he calls patriotism

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Warm birthday greetings to Paul Nuttall. The new leader of Ukip confirms the old adage about when life as a political titan begins by turning 40 on Wednesday.

He may not be Ukip’s guv’nor at 41. On the form book, it would be rash to assume he’ll be in the job when he enters his fifth decade, which at the time of writing is about nine hours away.

For now, this genial Scouser rules the Ukip roost, promising to add to the headless chicken count by decapitating particularly offensive members more ruthlessly than Nigel Farage. With his predecessor and drinking pal taking the usual path of the British artist who feels constricted by the weeniness of the home market and trying to break his act in the States, Nuttall may have the space and the peace to survive.

As always when gazing at the Ukip carousel of senior personnel, the temptation is to sneer. Nuttall may be yet to enjoy a saloon bar brawl with, or tweet anything wildly misogynistic about, a colleague. But he is a dead ringer for Eddie Hitler, Adrian Edmonson’s violent drunk in Bottom. As a shaven-haired guy who looks ready to nut all comers, he even has the Martin Amis comedy name.

This is all good grist to the mill of snark – but laughing Nuttall off as just the latest model to roll off Ukip’s inexhaustible production line of Keystone Kops vehicles would be a mistake.

Paul Nuttall: Why we should ban the burka

If only there were some recent precedent to illuminate the danger of smug leftie liberals like me writing off apparent buffoons of the far right. So long ago that no one remembers it now, we did it with Farage and woke up to Brexit. After that – and again you need to be ancient to remember – we did it with Donald Trump. So perhaps it’s time the rest of us learned the lesson that talented right-wing populists who speak a language the embittered and dispossessed can comprehend may be worth taking seriously.

Labour MPs in parts of the North and Midlands where Ukip is the closest challenger appreciate the menace, even if their leadership does not. It was Nuttall who originated the policy of hunting down Labour in its heartlands, presciently sensing an endemic weakness. He will now chase Labour seats with a message crudely but accurately targeted at what remains of its traditional working-class base.

Of course he will screech betrayal about whatever Brexit terms eventually emerge, and blame rising prices on the Tories rather than sterling’s post-Brexit decline.

But all the low-hanging fruit is in the Labour orchard. So long as Jeremy Corbyn nobly refuses to reposition Labour on immigration, and appears more fretful about Fidel Castro’s funeral than people’s jobs, Labour is intensely vulnerable to a plausible Ukip leader who neither looks nor sounds like an effete southern elitist. No vaguely mainstream political party has elected a working-class, northern born-and-bred leader in decades, and the last of those elocuted herself into an archetypal Home Counties housewife.

With that benefit, Nuttall will seek to pass himself off as the acceptable face of Ukip: a salt of the earth, commonsensical working-class hero speaking for those with no voice after being blithely left to rot into working poverty by Labour since the mid-1990s.

Already he has claimed Ukip has “wiped out the far right”. To win Labour seats in its old citadels, he must reassure its former loyalists that they are voting for something more palatable than a viciously reactionary party in a way Farage, with the daft boating jackets and nasteries about Romanians, could never quite manage.

It is sound politics, if not remotely true. Nuttall has argued for NHS privatisation, capital punishment and an English parliament. He bangs on about the flag of St George and the rebirth of what he calls patriotism, but you and I would regard as nationalism. He is pro banning the burqua, and anti banning the ivory trade. You no more need to be Nick Griffin to belong to the far right than be a fan of lynching to be a racist.

Stewart Lee discusses Ukip, immigration and Paul Nuttall

But the fact that something is false is a mounting irrelevance when the objective truth is viewed as about as quaintly olde worlde an entity as a Hansom cab.

Ukip has not wiped out the far right, as someone clever tweeted. It has subsumed it. And having done that, it has elected as leader a useful orator with a persona, sensibilities and language to resonate with disaffected Labour voters in seats where a relatively modest swing would dislodge the sitting MP.

You can hardly overstate Ukip’s capacity for internecine feuding and self-inflicted humiliation, or the unlikelihood of a leader with a surname other Farage surviving to get that gold watch. He may be gone by Easter. But nor can you exaggerate the existential peril Labour has faced for far longer than most of us, though not Nuttall, had realised. If there is room on its coffin for any more nails, Paul Nuttall seems indecently well qualified to find it.