UPDATE9 February 2017
The below article was submitted as an unsuccessful application for the position of Bagehot columnist at the Economist. On 4 February 2017 the magazine (they insist on 'newspaper') carried a Bagehot column 'from 2030' when UKIP had indeed replaced much of Labour. http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21716043-dispatch-2030-how-slow-death-labour-might-happen
I sent then the following (unpublished) letter in response to the column:
Bagehot (February 4th) posits a new party, On The Move!, formed by right Labour MPs after their poor results in a 2020 General Election, breaking the mould of British politics. But how well would a new SDP fare in changed circumstances after the rise of UKIP and the SNP?
And why would MPs like Jess Phillips (the projected leader of OTM!) want to leave Labour anyway? The Corbyn wing has withdrawn from battle by opposing compulsory reselection of candidates. Right Labour MPs are likely to reassert control after he goes. If Corbyn should lead Labour to victory, the Right may vote for their own choice to lead the parliamentary party and so probably be Prime Minister. Possession of nine-tenths of MPs would mean that these 'rebels' would run the Labour party.
Despite having many more members, could Labour really be eclipsed by UKIP?
William Gladstone did not have a Liverpudlian accent. If he had acquired any of the distinctive tones from either the city where he was born or from Seaforth, a few miles north along the Mersey and where he moved when very young, he may have left these behind at Eton. Paul Nuttall, the new Leader of UKIP was born in Bootle, located midway between Gladstone's early homes, and he was educated at a comprehensive school. Mr Nuttall speaks with the sounds of Merseyside but will he appeal to the Labour heartlands there and beyond in the way that Gladstone once enjoyed support from the 'labouring classes'?
Mr Nuttall's claim in his leadership victory speech that UKIP plans "to replace Labour" may not be absurd. The party has a sole MP but received 3.9 million votes in the last General Election and it is consistently ahead of the Liberal Democrats in recent polls. The Brexit end-game may prove favourable to them. It has a smaller membership than the Greens but being a member of a British political party entails no significant commitment; canvassing and leafleting is easily avoided and emailed financial appeals may be deleted unread.
There may also be other reasons for the usual bonhomie of Mr Nuttall. UKIP, like its vague counterpart over the ocean in Donald Trump, and in line with some similarly positioned Eurosceptic parties across the Channel, may benefit more from new political models than will Britain's traditional parties of government. These changes include not only the accelerating rate of obsolescence of the likes of election committee rooms and door-knocking but also the lessening impact of more recent innovations that parties used to maximise their electoral impact such as communications planning and swift rebuttal. The value of the direct channels from major parties to the large media outlets is also diminishing.
The radical right is proving to be nimbler at garnering support in elections through its direct to voter communication. Donald Trump fetes Nigel Farage (and so, by extension, UKIP) whilst also having a global influence on the right insurgent movement; national boundaries notwithstanding. Mr Trump may well have something to say about the outcome of next week's Supreme Court case in London regarding how Brexit should be triggered, especially if the government loses. Any such one-liner from the President-elect may be seen by more in Britain than any comment on the same matter by the Leader of Labour or the Liberal Democrats and maybe even the Prime Minister. Mr Trump talks to the world louder and on more frequencies than recent predecessors. That last most-transformative US president, Ronald Reagan, did not have Twitter. Even Mr Farage, no longer a party leader and maybe even soon to be based in the United States, could continue to have more purchase on British politics than the leaders of smaller political parties.
Using alternative forms of communication, the Trump-inspired populist right is both making the news on emotive Brexit issues; such as free movement and the single market; continuing payments; as well as benefitting from the public debate on these matters and issues like immigration from beyond the EU. This discussion is no longer just with neighbours at the bus-stop but spreads widely online.
Labour has increased its membership considerably since Ed Miliband's leadership to about 550,000. This year, Professor Tim Bale estimated the membership of the Conservative Party to be between 130,000 and 150,000. UKIP membership fell between the two leadership elections held by them since last year's General Election and it is currently about 32,000. Less than 20,000 of these members voted in each of the two leadership contests held this year; the total vote in Thursday's Richmond Pak by-election will see more votes cast.
But is Labour showing any benefit from having more members than the rest? Despite a lead in the number of members at the time of last year's General Election, the Tories received 21% more votes than them. 50% more electors currently say they intend to vote Tory next time, compared to Labour. The number of UKIP votes last year was 42% of the number of Labour votes. Mr Nuttall's claim that the views and interests of Jeremy Corbyn are not those of most Labour voters outlines his plan of how he hopes his party will grow by eating Labour's lunch. Will it be that no matter of old-style momentum and even a continuing growth in membership will pick-up Labour and save them from a possible future not yet as calamitous as they have suffered in Scotland but still resolutely downwards?
More members may not mean more votes
A Labour Party activist told me that "lots have joined but we never see them. It is too easy for them to click to join and then forget." Might the day loom when there are influential British political parties without any but a handful of members? The motor for this could not just be the ability for politicians to go direct to the pubic but the general decline in voluntary activity that has seen PTAs shut and sports club committees fold. There may be parties consisting of just a small group of thinkers or executives, possibly working in the orbit of a wealthy donor and awarding local franchises to those that will work for them? Aaron Banks, a major financial contributor to UKIP, has spoken about forming a "brand new party". Silvio Berlusconi led and has not yet fully lost a movement built in his image. The Referendum Party of Jimmy Goldsmith did not plant any lasting oaks but did provide seedlings for UKIP.
Trump has shown that even with a media that dislikes you or indeed, with a large section of the public that has very negative views about you, success is possible for those whose radical views resonate with many other voters. The Brexit winds may buffet the long-established parties more so than those with a thinner profile. Could UKIP, with its ability to attract far more voters per party member than the much bigger parties rise yet further, perhaps in tandem with a continuing demise of Labour?