Can Nigel Farage ride the wave of right-wing populism?

The Reform party's success in capturing votes in the U.K. general election could only be the start.

Jul 8, 2024 - 01:29
Can Nigel Farage ride the wave of right-wing populism?

LONDON — The closing salvo of Nigel Farage’s victory speech on the night of the U.K. general election will still be ringing in the ears of both Labour and Conservative MPs.

“This is just the first step of something that is going to stun all of you,” he declared in the early hours of Friday morning.

His upstart Reform UK party won around 14 percent of all votes cast in the 2024 election and, for the first time, saw a handful of MPs elected to the U.K. parliament, Farage among them.

And now the question is: Will this moment of triumph prove a temporary upset to Britain’s long tradition of largely centrist rule? Or will Reform’s explosive arrival in Westminster bring a fundamental realignment of British politics along the lines seen elsewhere for populist parties across the globe?

After all, Farage has proved a disrupter in the past, leading the movement which led first to former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron calling the Brexit referendum, then the successful Leave campaign which followed it.

Last week, Rishi Sunak became the latest Tory prime minister to suffer at his hands. Reform’s surge likely cost Sunak’s Conservative Party more than 100 MPs by splitting the right-wing vote.

Those stunned Tories are not the only politicians in Reform’s sights. As Farage went on in his acceptance speech: “We will now be targeting Labour votes, we’re coming for Labour, be in no doubt about that.”

Gunning for the top job

With those words Farage made clear he has much grander designs than just being a figure of permanent protest.

Farage claims Reform is a five-year project, which will end with him, or as he says, a “younger, more attractive” replacement, as prime minister.

Party apparatchiks point to the fact Reform came second to Labour in more than 100 seats as evidence of the party’s strength, particularly in the north of England, where many of those votes were racked up.

This strong showing cost the Tories from winning vast swathes of seats due to Britain’s first past the post voting system. The same electoral dynamic meant that while Reform won four million votes, it captured few actual seats, with only five new MPs.

However, at the next election, which must take place by 2029, all that could change.

Labour must now deal with the reality that much of its traditional working-class base that it lost to the Conservatives in 2019 has not returned — and has instead shifted to Reform.

Farage’s party picked up large vote shares in traditional Labour northern heartlands which went blue in 2019 when Boris Johnson smashed the so-called Red Wall.

With new Labour Prime Minister Keir Starmer now tasked with grappling with the multiple challenges of reviving these economically deprived areas, his Labour Party could face a backlash if he fails to deliver. All eyes then will then be on whether voters there return to the Tories — or jump all the way to Reform.

A global rise of the right

Starmer’s team will understand how fast it needs to move, considering the global currents moving toward the populist right in Europe and the U.S.

Donald Trump looks increasingly likely to win another term in the White House, while in France, Marine Le Pen is now the bookmakers’ favorite to become the next president in 2027.

Britain’s new government is expected to now go hard on thorny problems such as stopping small boats bringing undocumented immigrants from France and improving public services, to guard against Reform.

Alastair Campbell, podcaster and former Tony Blair spin doctor, said Labour needs to address the issues raised by Reform’s rise without playing “Farage at his own game.”

“You cannot out-Farage Farage,” he told Channel 4. “Labour has got [to] show it can solve the problems the country faces, including the problems that he exploits, and that’s the only way to do this.”

Starmer’s former policy chief Claire Ainsley, now a director at the PPI think tank, agreed, saying Reform’s rise is a problem for Labour long term “as it pushes the whole debate on issues like immigration to the political right.”

“The only way for the center-left to beat the populist right is to provide working-class voters with a better answer to the challenges they face,” she told POLITICO.

“This means policies that deliver on improving living standards, controlling immigration and telling a relatable story about who we are as nation.

“Starmer made a great start with his appeal to the nation on Friday. He will need to do that consistently as he leads the country through change if Labour is to see off the populist right that has been so potent in European politics,” she added.

A Farage in the hen house

Meanwhile, the remaining Tory MPs are already squabbling among themselves about how to deal with the existential threat caused by the populist firebrand and Trump buddy.

One option being hotly debated in whether is to allow Farage and his four Westminster colleagues into the Conservative Party — something which is vehemently opposed by the moderate One Nation wing of the party.

The upcoming Conservative leadership contest to replace Sunak will almost certainly be dominated by questions over whether the party should effectively merge with Reform by allowing Farage in. 

Farage himself may have given a hint of his disruptive desires during an interview with the Sun’s “Never Mind the Ballots” YouTube show in May.

Referring to his friend Trump’s MAGA takeover of the Republican Party, he said: “What Trump did, of course, is he was able to hijack the conservative party in America. I’d love to have had a crack at that here in this country.

“But of course, there’s no open primary in this country. The Conservative Party, several times, said they wouldn’t have me as a member … “

For some Tories, a change of heart may be underway, amid a feeling on the right of the party that Farage would be at home in their faction and could unite the country’s right-leaning voters too. Those who argue in favor of allowing Farage in include expected leadership contender Suella Braverman.

Who’s joining who?

Tory MP Edward Leigh, now the Father of the House as parliament’s longest-serving member, told the BBC on Friday that the Tories must “invite Reform voters and Farage to join us.”

“Because otherwise in five years’ time, we are going to have a similar debacle. We can’t have a divided right-wing vote,” he said.

Others disagree. Robert Goodwill, an ex-Tory MP who stood down at the election, told POLITICO: “We either tack right and cozy up to Farage — or stay in the center where elections are won.”

Tom Lubbock, former Tory Party data chief and founder of JL Partners polling firm, said the “lego bricks theory of adding the two votes of Conservatives and Reform together is actually quite appealing and has taken hold in the party.`”

He said that while most leadership contenders had ruled this out before the election, he believes the final results may change perspectives among senior Tories.

“The exit poll and result was a cleansing fire, which will reset a lot of people’s thinking on Reform,” Lubbock said.

Whatever conclusion the Tories come to may be a moot point, however; given his strong position, Farage could well fancy riding the Western wave of populism without the help of the Conservative Party.

As well as Reform’s strong performance in the U.K. general election, recent international events may lead Farage to have a change of heart about the best vehicle for his ambitions.

The rise of Le Pen’s National Rally, which finished top in the first round of the country’s legislative elections, and its quest to replace France’s version of the Tory Party (the Republicans) presents an apt model for him to emulate.

Surging populist right-wing parties in places including Germany and the Netherlands could also portend a unique moment for upstart right-wing parties in Europe.

Riding the wave

The official Reform line is that the party has no interest in joining forces with the Conservatives, and that its end goal is to dominate the right all by itself.

Farage told the Independent Saturday that the Tories “can join us if they want but we don’t need them and won’t be chasing them.”

“We don’t really need the poison they will bring,” he said.

Howard Cox, Reform’s defeated candidate in Dover and Deal, told POLITICO: “A center-right party will now evolve led by Nigel Farage with those true Conservatives who have been betrayed by Sunak’s regime.

“Real Tories with Thatcherite values of low taxation, small state and strong borders will join Nigel’s revolution.”

A Reform official, granted anonymity to comment candidly on the election fallout, was more blunt.

“There is no chance anybody is joining that rabble — they are already ripping shreds off each other,” they said.

Bethany Dawson and Esther Webber contributed reporting.

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