Saturday 10 December 2022

The Prospectless Future of Reform UK

UKIP was the most significant political force to the right of the Conservative Party that has ever arisen. At the 2015 general election it polled four million votes, had won two parliamentary by-elections in the year previous, steadily built up a base in local government and routinely dominated European Union elections. In 2019 and the EU elections that should never have been fought, its Brexit Party successor cleaned up with over 30% of the vote and saw the Tories reduced to seven per cent - their worst result in a national election ever. But success did not come from nowhere. Without its indulgence by the right wing press and, more crucially, very generous coverage given to by the BBC it's likely UKIP and Nigel Farage would have remained footnotes in the political history of the early 21st century.

The rise of UKIP is a case study in how a challenger party can break through if it suits the purposes of well-heeled and well-connected establishment figures. Initially, the 2004 circus around Robert Kilroy-Silk becoming a UKIP MEP gave the columnists and the 24 hours news editors something to fill their politics schedules with. As Farage built up his brand via frequent visits to BBC studios, he filled in following Kilroy's implosion. Never underestimate the ability to give good copy. After the 2009 EU elections, which awarded UKIP second place and 13 seats, they could be used as a means of pressuring the Coalition if the editorial offices at Tory papers thought the new government too liberal for their liking. On equal marriage, environmentalism, and latterly Europe the menace of UKIP was talked up to skew Tory politics, and therefore politics in general, to the right. This suited plenty of Conservative backbenchers fine, who had not forgiven Dave for throwing a commanding poll lead away and landing in Number 10 only because the Liberal Democrats supported him. A mix of threatened rebellions and grumbling, plus UKIP starting to perform well in parliamentary by-elections - especially after 2012 - began the tradition of appointing absolute horrors to cabinet, and eventually extracted the concession of the referendum on EU membership.

But since 2017, the ground hasn't been fertile for the right outside of the Conservatives. Save for the brief interlude of the Brexit Party's triumph before the general election, and the service it rendered the Tories by bleeding off Labour leave votes in seats where punters couldn't bring themselves to vote Tory in protest against the second referendum position (not that Labour had many options). With Boris Johnson straddling the ground from mainstream Tory voters to right wing populism, there was no space for the Brexit Party, long since renamed Reform UK. And especially so now since Farage retired from politics to become just another right wing grifter paid to say "outrageous" things.

But now things have changed. Liz Truss crashed and burned after appealing to Tory instincts, and Rishi Sunak is in with his near-billion pound fortune and briefcase Tory vibes. Apart from not sinking the economy to give the rich another tax cut, for all intents and purposes this government is a fusion of the party's hard right and far right. Obstinance on strikes, employing Putin-style legislation to protests, and appointing a fash-adjacent zealot with a penchant for antisemitic conspiracism as his Home Secretary, but this isn't enough for some. Sunak doesn't look the part for a layer of Tory supporters, while others are displeased by his dodging a membership contest. But what evidence is there that Reform UK are shaping up to be a force the Tories are going to have to reckon with?

If you keep an eye on the Tory press, there's heaps of it. Early last month, Richard Tice, the party's leader/trustee appeared in The Telegraph boasting about an influx of 4,000 new members - some two-thirds of them disgruntled Tories. By any standards, this is not significant beyond broadening the "membership" subs base. The same paper (again) came with a second bite at the cherry this week. "Conservative jumps ship to Reform UK as talks over more defections continue with MPs" is not as exciting as it sounds. The Tory in question is ... a councillor who held a senior regional lay position in the Yorkshire region. There are conversations "across the board, said Tice, and suggesting Reform posed the Tories an existential threat. And then on Saturday The Telegraph again bangs the drum for the party, highlighting polling undertaken by the always ridiculous Matt Goodwin that shows Reform on nine per cent, almost half of the Tory showing on 20%.

Valiant efforts at inventing a right wing party to needle the Tories, but there's little to no evidence for much appetite for reheated Faragism. Goodwin's People Polling outfit flatters Tice and co, but nearly all other companies put Reform on three to six per cent. Territory inhabited by the Green Party, sure, but unlike Reform they are regularly road tested in council by-elections and often poll respectably as well as winning seats. Reform barely bothers, and when it does they're level with the likes of TUSC and the Elvis Bus Pass Party. This differs significantly from UKIP who did take council elections seriously where and when they were able. Then there are the parliamentary by-elections. In Chester they managed 2.7%, coming behind the Greens. In others that have taken place during 2022, where Reform has stood previously they actually lost ground. With protest voting currently advantaging Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Greens it's hard to see how Reform can capitalise on current Tory difficulties. Especially with no EU elections to fall back on.

Nor do things look rosy in the medium term. Assuming the Tories are hung out to dry at the next election, it's very likely they will move right to try and consolidate their base after the trauma of heavy defeat. Little room there for Reform. And when opposition starts manifesting against Keir Starmer at the polls, either the Tories would benefit (doubtful) or following what we've seen in Germany, the Lib Dems and Greens start making inroads into Labour's support at council level - with new opportunities here assuming the planned constitutional overhaul goes through.

The tide came in for UKIP after 15 years of press campaigning. In the completely different context of Labour's ascendency, and that of left wing politics more generally, pushing the boat out a second time will not see the populist right ruling the waves.

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Robert Dyson said...

Comforting post.

Dipper said...

The point about UKIP and Reform is that they act as an anchor for the Tory Party. If they drift away from a core right-wing populist base, then a party pops up to take votes from them.

UKIP did this to Theresa May in 2019. She went, Brexit got delivered.

Reform threatens to take enough votes to turn a minority Labour government into a majority Labour Government.

Success for Reform is not Reform MPs in parliament, it is a Tory party committed to policies Reform support.