Lewisham East parliamentary by-election: the end of civic nationalism?

David Kurten, former UKIP leadership candidate humiliated in Lewisham by-election

Yesterday’s parliamentary by-election in the SE London constituency of Lewisham East was another tragi-comic episode in the slow death of the United Kingdom Independence Party.

Under the leadership of Nigel Farage, UKIP won more votes and seats than any other party at the 2014 European Parliamentary elections, ending up with 24 MEPs, though never gaining more than two MPs in the House of Commons. The party was primarily responsible for forcing then Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to concede a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, resulting in the historic Brexit vote of 2016.

But that was the beginning of the end for UKIP. Structural problems and ideological confusion (already analysed in several issues of H&D well before 2016) were never properly addressed even under Farage’s leadership, and since his departure immediately after the referendum the party has been scarred by factional infighting and incompetent leadership.

Yesterday was merely the latest demonstration of UKIP’s desperate state. Their by-election candidate was one of their highest profile and most experienced performers, half-caste London Assembly member David Kurten, but he finished a poor sixth with only 380 votes (1.7%), behind not only the big three parties and the Greens, but also behind the Women’s Equality Party!

Tess Culnane – polled more votes in a single Lewisham ward than UKIP managed yesterday across the entire seven-ward constituency of Lewisham East

To put this into context, H&D readers should remember that in 2002 BNP local election candidates Barry Roberts and Tess Culnane polled more votes in a single ward of Lewisham East than Mr Kurten managed yesterday across the entire constituency (which contains seven wards)!

The only good news for UKIP is that Kurten finished ahead of his former colleague Anne Marie Waters. She had been UKIP candidate for this constituency at the 2015 General Election, polling a very creditable 3,886 votes (9.1%) in what were admittedly far better times nationwide for the party. After an acrimonious leadership election last year, Ms Waters quit and with the help of former BNP and EDL activists created a breakaway party called the For Britain Movement.

Yesterday Ms Waters finished a poor seventh, with only 266 votes (1.2%). Her only excuse is that Labour called the by-election very quickly after the resignation of the previous MP, so Ms Waters and her campaign team (which included former East London BNP election guru Eddy Butler) had very little time. Yet it must be admitted that the Liberal Democrats also had very little time, yet they succeeded in building a serious bandwagon and advancing to second place: having lost their deposit twelve months ago with only 4.4%, the Lib Dems polled 24.6% yesterday.

Anne Marie Waters on the by-election campaign trail with former BNP election guru Eddy Butler (third left, back row) and an activist team including several former BNP officials and councillors, whose help could not save Ms Waters from a crushing defeat.

The inescapable conclusion is that the Lib Dem message (almost entirely focused on pro-Remain voters) resonated strongly with a certain section of the Lewisham electorate. We know that there is a different section of the Lewisham electorate who respond to nationalist issues, including immigration and law and order, but the Islam-obsessed campaigns of Kurten and Waters failed to resonate similarly among those voters. This was despite Ms Waters’ ally ‘Tommy Robinson’, founder of the EDL, getting himself jailed during the campaign and creating worldwide publicity. Proof yet again that there is a big difference between Facebook likes, or turning out screaming mobs in Whitehall, and the serious grown-up politics of winning votes.

It probably didn’t help that Lewisham is an odd place to bang on about Muslims: the area has many immigration-related problems, but relatively few of the large non-White population here are Muslims.

The third civic nationalist candidate, Massimo DiMambro of the new Democrats & Veterans party, was always going to be overshadowed by the far higher profile and better financed campaigns of Kurten and Walters: he managed only 67 votes (0.3%).

However the Democrats & Veterans party, which is much less Islam-obsessed than either UKIP or For Britain, but takes a strong line on immigration and other nationalist issues, seems to be having more success than Ms Waters’ party in building a network of branches nationwide.

The best bet is that UKIP-style civic nationalism is dying, but when the dust settles Democrats & Veterans might be the one viable civic nationalist party still capable of making a challenge (at least for local council seats).

 

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