Does UKIP Have a Future in Wales?

At the end of last week Gareth Bennett was announced as the new leader of UKIP in the Welsh Assembly. In a ballot of UKIP members in Wales he obtained 269 votes, compared to 193 for Neil Hamilton and 130 for Caroline Jones.

This outcome surprised many observers. Since winning a list seat for South Wales Central in the last Assembly election Gareth Bennett has received distinctly mixed reviews as an AM; it is only a few months since he was suspended from Assembly debates for ‘hateful’comments in one of his speeches. Indeed, the new leader appeared to concede that his victory may have been in spite of, rather because of, his personal qualities and political record.

We don’t know enough about the electorate – the UKIP membership in Wales – or their voting patterns in the leadership election to say very much about the reasons for their choice of Bennett over Hamilton and Jones. But the new leader himself made clear that he viewed his victory as being down, in significant part, to his views on the future of the Assembly; he has promised to campaign for a referendum on the chamber’s abolition.

This policy appears to have had some appeal to the UKIP membership. But how will it play to the wider Welsh electorate? And might it provide UKIP with a future in Welsh politics?

Answers to such questions must always, in this febrile political times, be offered with some caution. With UKIP there is perhaps even greater reason for uncertainty. The party has been in turmoil for most of the last two years. Moreover, it is strongly associated by the public with Brexit; what happens with that over the next few months and years will likely have profound implications for all political parties, including them. The political context may change radically before the next National Assembly election in May 2021.

But some things are known with certainty. One is that UKIP’s support has declined substantially since Brexit referendum. The party polled well in Wales for much of two years up to the May 2016 Assembly election, but its support declined rapidly after they were on the winning side in the June 2016 referendum. Most recent evidence has suggested that, on current trends, UKIP will struggle to retain a presence in the Assembly after May 2021.

A second thing we know is that there is support in Wales for the abolition of the Assembly. Most studies of public attitudes indicate that opposition to devolution declined surprisingly quickly in the years after the 1997 referendum; this work also indicates that support for some devolution for Wales within the UK has been the clear majority opinion in pretty much all studies since about 2003. But while abolition may be a minority view, it does have some support.

Quite how large is this minority? As ever, different polls, asking different questions, suggest slightly different things. Just prior to the twentieth anniversary of the 1997 referendum, which voted narrowly in favour of establishing the Assembly, a Welsh Political Barometer poll asked some relevant questions. In a multi-option question, where respondents were asked to indicate their most-favoured constitutional status for Wales from several options, some 17 percent chose the “no devolved government in Wales” position. But when the same poll asked people directly how they would vote in a hypothetical vote today on establishing a Welsh Assembly, some 27 percent indicated that they would vote against creating such a body. More recently, the BBC/ICM  published around St David’s Day asked another multi-choice constitutional preference question; this one found some 12 percent of respondents favouring the abolition of the Assembly.

In short, all available recent evidence is that abolition of the Assembly is a minority view. But this minority is not a tiny one, and it is every bit as entitled as anyone else to have their views articulated and advanced in the political process. Moreover, it is quite possible that a determined campaign by a political party could increase support for abolition among the Welsh people. After all, support for what we now call Brexit was very much a minority taste until not long before the referendum in which the UK voted to Leave the EU.

Another potentially relevant, though very different, type of evidence is the result of the last Assembly election. The Abolish the Assembly party (ATA) won 4.4 percent of the regional list vote across Wales. They managed this despite having very little public profile, virtually no party machinery, and getting little media attention during the campaign. ATA won more votes than did the Green Party – despite the latter having been represented in pre-election televised debates and having a much more well-known political brand. Essentially ATA seem to have won a significant share of the vote on their name alone. This does suggest that if UKIP were to become clearly the anti-devolution party in Wales then they might be tapping into at least some reservoir of potential support.

It may appear paradoxical that UKIPs’ future in the Welsh Assembly could be best secured by campaigning for that institution’s abolition. But something close to that has been UKIP’s position on the European Parliament for many years, and the party has been represented there continuously since 1999. Whatever his other shortcomings as a party leader prove to be, Gareth Bennett may have hit on a policy that has not only helped him to win his party’s leadership in Wales, but also have given UKIP their best chance of continuing to be a significant voice in Welsh politics.