Tuesday 28 May 2019

What Now for the Brexit Party?

While everyone loses their heads over the expulsion of Alastair Campbell, let's consider weightier matters: what Nigel Farage's Brexit Party is going to do next. After all, here we are two days after the election results and the media, including the BBC, seem to have forgotten already that the Brexit Party steamed to the top of the poll with 31% of the vote and had 29 MEPs returned. We know there is something of a bias against in-depth coverage of the Tories compared to Labour, but seeing the commentariat carry on as if the near total displacement of the mainstream right by a fringe outfit is nothing less than astonishing.

Their loss. The problem facing Farage now is how to keep the bandwagon going and, unfortunately, there are forces at work making life easier for him. Having seen the wipe out coming, the Tory leadership contest is already heavily conditioned by the Faragist insurgency before Sunday night's disaster hit. For instance, it was surprising to see Jeremy Hunt this morning confirm his bid for Number 10, and then immediately declaring against no deal under any circumstance - a moment of "responsibility" that has likely cost him his scanty chance. But for the hard Brexit/no deal wing of the contest, they reason there is little chance the party is going to be punished if they can annex the Brexit Party vote, like Theresa May hammered UKIP in 2017. That's right, the country, the economy, living standards, they can go wallow in the gutter as long as the Conservative Party remains a going concern. What this means then is the Brexit Party casts a large shadow over proceedings and its presence will haunt Tory debates, ensuring its continued relevance for the leadership election's duration.

We also have the small matter of the Peterborough by-election. This is Labour's seat to lose, after voters decanted Fiona Onasanya following her spell in pokey for lying about a speeding offence. And the Brexit Party have reason to be bullish. They're coming off a successful EU campaign (nothing breeds success like success, as Bob Ross put it), the count for the local authority area for the election put the Brexit Party on twice Labour's vote, and parliamentary by-elections do have a logic of their own. Local issues play more, but also if voters are minded to give the incumbent a kicking, following the 'normal' 2012 Corby by-election through to the 2015 general election, UKIP became the protest party go to - regardless of the party who was defending the seat. Might we see this happen again? Whether the Faragists win or not, they will do very well and their vote is going to feed the impression of momentum, of a pro-Brexit people's army rallying to Farage's banner.

However, the biggest problem Farage has got is his jury-rigged party. Consider the UKIP experience. Farage's writ was never entirely law when he was leader, and the party was always fractious - members falling out in public, MEPs resigning, punch ups, and embarrassing Walter Mitty fantasists. And this was just the party's leading figures. UKIP suffered because its constituency tended to be quite soft, having abandoned other parties, and also non-too-coherent. Refugees from the Tories were always its main base, as it is for the Brexit Party, but ex-Labour voters were involved too. One reason why UKIP dumped its shallow libertarian schtick when it hit the big time was because balls-out Thatcherism wouldn't cut it with the electorate it was seeking.

The Brexit Party repeats all this. It's got the same bunch of voters, plus some more. They are mostly old and, mirroring UKIP and its Tory parent, the party has gathered about it a coalition in long-term decline. i.e. If the party sticks around, it's not going to replace its support like-for-like as voters shuffle off this mortal coil and young people come of age. Add to that some real egos too. While there is no Brexit Party without Farage, as UKIP have discovered to their cost, I'm sure some, like Richard Tice in the East of England, Ann Widdecombe in the South West, and the ex-Revolutionary Communist Party, could come to believe they are personages in their own right and the party label was incidental to their election. We've seen it so many times. Among the 29 MEPs returned, some are going to cause a ruckus and an inconvenience and give Farage a headache.

Anticipating all this, the Brexit Party has been set up as a cadre party. That is an identifiable group of notables who compete in elections, control the apparatus of the party and its messaging, but lack a mass membership. Indeed, you still can't join the Brexit Party, but you can give money and have your name added to its mailing list. What is slightly different about this party is Farage is the cadre - he decides all things. If any of his MEPs rebel, he can turf them out without any due process. And if Brexit Party supporters do a racism, well they're only supporters for whom neither he nor the party have any responsibility. Indeed, Farage has been entirely candid the party was set up as a company for exactly this reason.

Still, there is a problem here. To persist parties need a life of their own. Parties, among other things, are communities of the like-minded. They do more than campaign, they are a social space for people to congregate. That, at least, is the possibility held out by mass membership parties. This isn't the case for the Brexit Party. Bypassing this means that not only is the party entirely top down, it's lack of - for want of a better phrase - horizontality makes for a brittle, weak party. Farage has hit upon a means of securing this participation without ceding control. Again, talking to Channel 4 News this evening, he said that the Brexit Party is going to outsource its policy to the supporter base by, effectively, crowd sourcing and holding referenda on what should go in the manifesto. Again, this shields Farage from scrutiny of what his views really are because he can hide behind his party. What are the supporters likely to go for? A fully-funded NHS, protection of pensions, cuts to overseas aid, more armed forces spending, and so on, giving the party a platform he could spin as neither left nor right but democratic. And all without ceding control.

Therefore we have a fraught politics powering Farage's continued relevance, and moves by him to ensure his movement has a life of its own can can't merely be carried off by one of the Tory leadership hopefuls. It's this backward, atavistic party that swept all before it last week, and they are in a position to deeply influence the selection of the next Prime Minister. What a terrible state of affairs.


whisperit said...

Yes, as you say, with UK politics in such a mess, Farage needs no party to perpetuate his demagogic career. In the hiatus between leaving UKIP and forming the Brexit Party, he remained omnipresent in the media and especially on the BBC. It's as if his criticism of the established Westminster parties has made him an honorary 'independent' correspondent.
The EU election results show that with this support, plus a few billionaire backers, his need of a party machine is negligible. Anne Widdecombe, the Rees-Mogg and the rest are entirely dispensible.
Tragically, Corbyn and co seem to have been ensnared in Westminster village politics and/or fantasies about a mythical industrial working class. He has the activist base, but unless he learns something from Farage's campaigning strategy, that will soon vanish again.

Dipper said...

you folks don't understand this do you. I didn't vote for Farage because I really like the idea of a Dulwich college educated beer drinking throwback with dodgy mates running the country. I voted for him because he provides a vehicle for my views on the EU and our leaving it. He is not using us, we are using him. If he goes, then we will look for another vehicle.

You cannot solve the problem of Brexit by removing Farage. But you can solve the problem of Farage by sorting Brexit.