There was no shortage of scoffing this week when Nigel Farage announced the relaunch of his Brexit Party as Reform UK, primarily intended to capitalise on and bolster anti-lockdown sentiment. Times columnist David Aaronovitch, for instance, predicted that Farage’s latest rebrand would get “absolutely nowhere.” Given his previous track record with predictions, we’d probably be wise not to bank on this one.
It would be a mistake to judge Farage’s ventures solely on the basis of their electoral showings. That said, they have had real successes at the polls: most notably, the Brexit Party won outright in last spring’s European elections. Previously, Farage had led UKIP to nearly four million votes in 2015, having already forced David Cameron to commit to that fateful referendum on Europe. Yet Farage’s own failure to win a Commons seat has often made him the subject of scorn.
No doubt Farage’s sizeable ego has been somewhat bruised by his inability to ensconce himself at Westminster. However, this has been more than outweighed by the victories he has enjoyed elsewhere. With Britain now staring down the barrel of the hardest of Brexits, after a host of former Labour seats were delivered to Boris Johnson’s Tories last December courtesy of their pact with the Brexit Party, nobody can seriously dispute that Farage has been tremendously successful at dragging British politics in his direction.
To a large extent, admittedly, Farage has been pushing at an open door. Britain’s national press is notoriously reactionary in its politics, and as such was always likely to be sympathetic to an energetic right-wing outrider pushing hardline Euroscepticism and nativism. Not only that, but the BBC – bête noire of the right for its perceived aloofness and patrician cosmopolitanism – has also been more than welcoming to Farage; he has made 35 appearances on its flagship Question Time series over the last two decades.
Important to note, too, is the Tory right’s canny response to Farage, and how it has used him and his various political vehicles for leverage. As a result, and remarkably quickly, it has been able to expunge or marginalise the remaining elements of Cameronite Toryism from the Tory Party and thereby cement its own hegemony over it. Compare and contrast this with the bilious reaction of the Labour right and liberal centre against Corbynism, the defeat of which has prompted a scramble to slam the Overton window firmly shut again.
Obviously, it is far from guaranteed that Farage will enjoy the same sort of influence in the future as he has in the past. At first glance, anti-lockdown politics would appear to have relatively little appeal outside the feverish world of right-wing Facebook groups. According to a snap YouGov poll, Johnson’s decision to impose a second, month-long lockdown in England was backed by 72 per cent of respondents, with support rising to 77 per cent among the over-65s (the Tories’ core demographic).
But this should be no cause for complacency. Firstly, 23 per cent of those who responded to the poll declared themselves against the second lockdown – by no means a negligible figure. Secondly, anti-lockdown attitudes could grow as the economic crisis induced by Covid-19 deepens, especially if there are further lockdowns or this latest one goes on for longer than anticipated. With unemployment rising, many small businesses going to the wall and a lack of sufficient economic support for the broader public, the populist right could find itself on fertile terrain.
Amid this economic and human wreckage, racism, scapegoating and conspiracy theorising may be an alluring response for many of those seeking some explanation for what’s happening. The right has already laid the groundwork here, and with the socialist left in considerable disarray at present – not least because it is being subjected to an ongoing purge by the Labour right – its ability to mount a serious near-term fightback risks being substantially weakened.
Farage’s tactical shift towards anti-lockdown politics suggests furthermore that he is going after a different demographic, one likely to be hit hard by the looming slump. It might be that he is looking to supplement the reactionary right’s existing (and ageing) popular base with younger blood. There are reasons to question whether Farage is personally capable of reaching these people, but his previous achievements in mobilising new layers of support for the right, shifting the entire centre of political gravity in the process, are undeniable.
It was reported last month that Farage was in talks to buy Talk Radio from Rupert Murdoch. This, along with the impending launch of other right-wing outlets (including Andrew Neil’s GB News), demonstrates that the right takes ideological struggle much more seriously than the bulk of the labour movement. Naturally, it’s easier when sympathetic tycoons have seemingly limitless cash reserves to throw at your projects, but the left media sphere in Britain is – without meaning to denigrate it – marginal and under-resourced.
All this is particularly worrying given the newfound reluctance of the Labour Party to present any compelling alternative or counter-argument of its own. Under Keir Starmer, Labour is trying to resurrect an unthreatening centrist politics just as the world enters its second major economic crisis in 12 years. The party leadership’s immediate concern is to dispel any fear on the part of the media and British capital that it may still be harbouring some residual radicalism, hence Starmer prostrating himself before the CBI on Monday.
Confronting us are colossal challenges, from Covid to climate change, requiring far-reaching radicalism. A visionless, self-congratulatory, don’t-rock-the-boat managerialism, fetishising technocracy while these multiple calamities worsen, will prove inadequate. And yet, despite everything, the centre’s self-proclaimed modernisers have yet to come to terms with the fact that they can’t just re-run the 1990s playbook endlessly.
If Joe Biden wins the US election – which has proven far more difficult than he predicted – the new President will soon discover much the same thing. We can only hope this reality dawns on the political centre before it’s too late to do anything about the disasters piling up, but any such Damascene conversion looks a distant prospect. The danger therefore is that Labour and the Democrats now fail to rise to a pivotal political moment, as they did after 2008, and that the hard right once again takes advantage of the discontent they leave in their wake.
This is where Nigel Farage comes in. His main function is that of ideological spearhead, creating a space for other politicians, parties and media outlets on the right to occupy; a role he has played very effectively over a long period. Crises such as these are highly volatile and opinion can be shifted rapidly. Farage understands this, and the political opportunities it presents, far better than most of his adversaries.