What Change UK can learn from Nigel Farage

The comparisons being made between the launches of Change UK and the Brexit Party underline and illuminate the former’s missed opportunity. 

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Change UK aka the Independent Group has unveiled its list of candidates for the European elections, including ex-Newsnight journalist Gavin Esler, the columnist Rachel Johnson, the former Conservative health secretary Stephen Dorrell and a slew of former MPs, parliamentary candidates and councillors from the main parties, as well as first-time campaigners.

But the campaign launch has been marred by the resignation of one of the candidates, former MMA fighter and ex-Tory activist Ali Sadjady, after it emerged that he had tweeted that the fact that 70 per cent of London’s pickpockets were Romanian was almost enough to make him support Brexit.

It’s being compared unfavourably with the gradual roll-out of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party candidates, which included a nurse, a marine veteran, a small business owner and the head of a charity, none of whom have at time of writing had to resign. Today Ann Widdecombe, former Tory minister and shadow cabinet veteran has announced that she is one of the candidates for the Brexit Party, too.

The comparisons underline and illuminate Change UK’s missed opportunity. Change UK’s route to long-term success lies in presenting itself as an anti-system party of the centre, while its path to short-term success and viability is in becoming the best way for Remainers to send a message to the two big political parties on 23 May.

Praising Farage’s political acumen is the in-thing at the moment, but it’s worth remembering that he’s not the first person to discover that nurses and veterans are popular among the British public. If you look at the details of the candidates on Change UK’s list, let alone some of those who applied but were turned down, you can see that they had the potential to roll out a similarly anti-system looking roster of candidates.

You don’t have to be Peter Mandelson to know that announcing a few names from your list of MEPs ahead of time, as Farage did with Annunziata Rees-Mogg, and leaving a couple of names in reserve, as Farage did with Widdecombe, gets you more coverage over more time.

There’s no reason why Change UK couldn’t have done the same, unveiling a set of fresh-faced candidates yesterday and gradually revealing the likes of Esler, Johnson and the various former MPs to have defected over a longer period.

It underlines one of their biggest problems: that its members don’t seem to understand that the rules are different for smaller parties, that they are no longer guaranteed the coverage that came from being one pole of their former parties’ civil wars, and that if no one has heard of you, no one will vote for you. That’s a challenge that the Liberal Democrats – and Farage – have learnt how to overcome over long years. Change UK may not have the benefit of time.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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