James Reed: With Farage gone, is Ukip a spent force - or the new power behind British politics?

THEY have gone by a few names in the week or so since the EU referendum result.

Nigel Farage is stepping down as Ukip leader.
Nigel Farage is stepping down as Ukip leader.

The disconnected, the forgotten, the disillusioned, the left behind...

It is this group which won or lost the referendum, depending on your point of view. Given an opportunity to express their anger at what has happened to them and their communities over the last decade and perhaps even longer, they did so loudly and in huge numbers.

Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis was quicker than most to spot this dynamic when, in the days before the vote, he said: “The interesting thing for me is that for many of my constituents and I suspect for millions of people around the country – this hasn’t actually been a referendum on the European Union, it has been a referendum on their own lives.

“Some of the people who are going to vote to leave, for them it’s not actually a critique of the European Union, it is a broader concern about the fact that globalisation has brought all kinds of benefits to the country but they themselves have not benefitted.”

Amid the political bloodletting that has followed the June 23 referendum result, it is a message that has been echoed by senior figures in both the major parties. Undoubtedly there is genuine concern that a section of the population increasingly feels that life in Britain is not delivering for them and their families.

But be in no doubt there are political calculations at work too, as a look at the marginal constituencies in Yorkshire which decided last year’s general election illustrates.

In Pudsey, Labour’s number one target seat in Yorkshire in 2015, sitting Conservative MP Stuart Andrew won with a majority of 4,501. Ukip came third with 4,689 votes.

Over in Colne Valley, another Labour target, the Conservatives held the seat with a majority of 5,378. Ukip picked up 5,734 votes.

The margin of victory for Conservatives over Labour in neighbouring Colne Valley was 4,427 where Ukip secured 5,950 votes. Where Labour won or held marginal seats, there was a similar story. Ukip’s candidate in Halifax, where Labour hung on by fewer than 500 votes, earned 5,621 votes. If Labour had won a fraction of Ukip’s near 8,000 votes in Morley and Outwood, Ed Balls would still be an MP.

If an election is called this autumn or in the spring then it will be fought on the same constituencies as 2015. Boundary changes due to be in place by 2020 will add a layer of uncertainty. But in either scenario the conclusion is clear. While Ukip has struggled to secure Westminster seats, it has drained support from both main parties in quantities that are sufficient to swing results between Labour and Conservatives.

Ukip was facing major questions in the aftermath of the referendum, regardless of the result. In the event of a Remain vote, how would it continue to press the case for leaving the EU with no likelihood of a second referendum anytime soon and, following a Leave victory, what role would it now serve, its primary goal now having been achieved? Nigel Farage knew it too. He went into the referendum campaign with the likes of Douglas Carswell and Suzanne Evans seeking to unseat him and while victory had bought him time, he nevertheless faced the decision over whether to summon the energy for a fresh battle or declare, as he did yesterday, ‘job done’ and step down.

The fight for the leadership of Ukip now joins those already underway for the Conservatives and Labour. And in all three cases, the real battle is for Ukip voters. For both major parties, it is impossible to identify precise points where Europe caused supporters to start drifting away. A section of Conservative support certainly never came to terms with John Major approving the Maastricht Treaty.

Labour might trace back its Ukip problem to 2007 when Gordon Brown promised to address voters’ concerns about the impact of EU expansion and delivered only a soundbite promising “British jobs for British workers” backed by little in the way of substance.

For years, Labour and the Conservatives have been trying to work out how to reach out to the supporters they have lost to Ukip. However the referendum, together with the prospect of a snap general election and now Mr Farage’s resignation, have combined to force the issue and make it the unspoken theme lurking beneath their respective leadership battles.

On the Conservative side it manifests itself in candidates’ promises to deliver Brexit and address immigration. For Labour, MPs are acting on their concerns that Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal is to idealistic students and middle class socialists rather than the white working class voters it desperately needs.

The race for Ukip voters is on. It will also determine the outcome of the next election when it comes.