Flies in the ointment
Whither the Brexit Party? James Harvey thinks it has no long-term future.
After a week of parliamentary alarums and excursions, and febrile talk of ‘coups’ and a ‘crisis of democracy’, the prorogation of parliament appears to have given both political leaders and commentators a chance to take stock and prepare for the next act in the long-drawn out drama of Brexit. Amidst the hysteria and hyperbole there does seem to be widespread agreement that Boris Johnson’s minority Tory government has lost the initiative to the combined (albeit disparate) forces of the opposition parties and could only remain in office through the parliamentary manoeuvre of prorogation.
The possibilities of a vote of confidence or a defeat of the Tory government’s programme following the queen’s speech debates in October or November remain strong. Consequently all parties are now gearing up for an election, with Johnson making the running with all manner of promises about spending on education, the police and the health service, and - above all - leaving the European Union “do or die” on October 31. Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment in his speech to the Trades Union Congress on September 10 that a Labour government would offer “a public vote with a credible option to leave and the option to remain” was made in a similar electioneering vein. This pragmatic approach seems to be an attempt to unite both ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’, and to shift the fight back onto Corbyn’s favoured electoral ground of anti-austerity and attacks on ‘the elite’.
However, a key factor in any electoral contest that many expect to upset these calculations is the continued dominance of politics by Brexit and the emergence of the Brexit Party. Founded in February, its candidates in the May European parliament elections emerged as the largest group with 31.6% of the poll and 29 MEPs. In pushing Labour into third place (14.1% and 10 MEPs) and the Tories into fifth (9.1% and four MEPs), the success of the Brexit Party, along with the second-placed remain-supporting Liberal Democrats (20.3% and 16 MEPs) and the strong showing of the Greens, seemed to point to a radically altered political landscape. This electoral upset confirmed what had very quickly become the established wisdom since the referendum that the long dominant electoral politics of Labour and Tory had been replaced by a new division between remainers and leavers.
As we enter another electoral period, this conventional wisdom remains largely intact. At its core are a number of assumptions about the politics of the Brexit Party, the nature of its appeal and its level of support, which require much closer examination. In terms of opinion poll ratings the Brexit Party has remained consistently in fourth place over the summer with a range of support between 9% and 17% (early September).1 As the experience of the UK Independence Party in the 2015 and 2017 general elections has shown, under the first-past-the-post system these figures are unlikely to yield a single seat for the Brexit Party. However, a key question will be which party - the Tories or Labour - will be most damaged by voters remaining or shifting to the Brexit Party? Likewise on the other side, can both the Tories and Labour retain support from remain voters who might switch to the Liberal Democrats? The churning of votes between the parties in this way and the electoral consequences of slight movements of opinion do more than provide endless hours of fun for psephologists and political anoraks: the developing electoral strategies of both the Tories and the Brexit Party rest on a common assessment of these patterns and the nature of the so-called leave vote.
The current positioning of the Brexit Party and its offer of an electoral arrangement to the Tories is very revealing in this regard. In return for a free run at up to 90 parliamentary seats in “Labour heartlands” which strongly voted leave, it is reported that Nigel Farage would not field candidates against sitting Tory MPs or in Tory target seats. 2 The benefit for the Tories, according to the BP, would be a huge majority for Boris Johnson and a clear mandate for a “clean-break Brexit”.3 This reflects much of the evidence that the leave vote since 2015 has been drawn from older, Tory voters.4 Much attention has been given to the so-called ‘left behind’ voters in areas of low wages, unemployment and social deprivation. However, the leave vote in the referendum was more evenly spread than this popular ‘analysis’ suggests: in fact it included the home counties, and rural Scotland and Wales, along with safe Tory seats in the English shires, far from post-industrial Britain. Moreover, the subsequent electoral successes of the Brexit Party were more likely to be found in these constituencies than amongst “traditional Labour voters”.5
This is not to deny that large numbers of Labour voters backed leave in 2015 and have continued to express their hostility to the status quo in this way since then. However, what the Brexit Party - and the Tories too - are relying on is that the leave vote can coalesce as a coherent bloc that can be mobilised in the forthcoming election, providing a bargaining counter for Farage in his dealings with Johnson by weakening the Labour vote in key marginals. Again much of the popular wisdom supports this assessment, but is the Brexit Party a suitable vehicle for such a project? Even in a period of electoral volatility and shifting political allegiances, does it really have a long-term future?
The Brexit Party shares many of the ideological and organisational characteristics of a series of insurgent, populist movements that have emerged internationally in the last 20 years or so. Usually focussed on a ‘charismatic’ leader embodying the struggle of ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’, these currents offer a programme mixing nostalgia for past glories and a brighter future, once ‘the people’ have ‘taken back control’.6 Farage’s railing against the Westminster bubble and the metropolitan elite - posing as the voice of common sense and the real British people - draws strongly on these themes. Using the powerful language of democracy, he frames his appeal to the ignored, the unheard and the forgotten, far from the centres of power and wealth.7
Whilst this potent, ‘populist’ appeal may appear to have some demagogic echoes of the far right, in fact it has far more in common with historic strands in the ideology of British Toryism. His is the voice of ‘the Country against the Court’: he stands for native common sense against metropolitan sophistication. Farage’s own roots lay in the Thatcherism of the 1980s and his appeal to the politics of that decade locates him firmly within that wider Conservative Party tradition. Hence his current manoeuvring and public calls for a non-aggression pact with Johnson can be readily understood as part of a wider project to realign the Tories and to secure his own personal position within any such new reconfiguration. As the Tory civil war over Brexit continues to rage, he encourages it from the side-lines, and hopes, like young Fortinbras, to reap his reward when the battle is finally over.
As a minor player on the fringes of Toryism, Farage and the Brexit Party will continue to play some role in British politics. But his party does not have the ideological coherence or deep social roots of popular Toryism or the class identification of Labourism to sustain a long-term political movement. It can continue to benefit from the current crisis within the Tories: it will pick up sections of both petty bourgeois and working class voters, who express their alienation from contemporary society through opposition to ‘Brussels’ and respond to calls to ‘take back control’. But, as a programme and a party, Faragism does not really exist in any meaningful sense: other than the admittedly powerful rhetoric of democracy and respecting the will of the people, its specific demands are a pathetic rag-bag of Poujadism, limited to calls to “rebuild the regions, free broadband for all, hope for the high street, the scrapping of inheritance tax and interest-free student loans”.8
However, it is unwise to write off the Brexit Party because of the shallowness of its policies. Much in current politics will remain uncertain and unpredictable: if British withdrawal is either delayed or is delivered in a way that can be defined as ‘Brexit in name only’ (Brino) - still the ruling class’s preferred option as a way out of the current impasse, in my opinion - then Farage’s party can continue to play a major role. The mythology of ‘the stab in the back’ is always potent in time of uncertainty and defeat.
Nigel Farage is a talented charlatan, a mountebank capable of drumming up a crowd if enough voters feel that Brexit is Brino and that once again they have been betrayed by the elite.
. For an analysis of the social, economic and geographical nature of the ‘leave’ vote see https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0308518X16665844; or www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-36616028.↩︎
. For a further discussion on these ‘populist’ themes see ‘Understanding the “populist movement”’ Weekly Worker August 31 2017; and ‘Possibilities and challenges’, September 7 2017.↩︎
. See, for example, the videos on the Brexit Party’s website (www.thebrexitparty.org) or the 2014 debate between Farage and Nick Clegg: www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQecSS5ribM.↩︎
. ‘My election offer to Boris’ Daily Express September 11 2019.