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21 February 2024

Nigel Farage is shaping Britain’s political future

Deluded progressives created the former Ukip leader. Now, as an election looms, he will decide the size of any Labour majority.

By John Gray

Mainstream parties confront a world they struggle to understand. Labour is unprepared for governing in a disintegrating global order, while the Conservatives are squabbling over ideologies inherited from a time long gone. Sensing the disorientation of their rulers, voters are oscillating uncertainly between apathetic resignation and mutinous discontent. It is hard to imagine a more advantageous moment for Nigel Farage, the former leader of Ukip and the Brexit Party, now honorary president of Reform UK and a GB News presenter, to launch an assault on the Westminster political class.

By any objective standard, Farage is one of the two most consequential actors in British politics in the last half-century after Thatcher and Blair (the other, it should be unnecessary to say, is Dominic Cummings). It was Farage who goaded David Cameron into calling a referendum that would bring about an historic shift in Britain’s place in the world. It was Farage who, by standing down his troops in 2019, enabled Boris Johnson to win the general election with the overwhelming majority he was destined to squander. And it will be Farage, more than anyone else, who decides the size of any Labour majority after the coming election, and whether the Conservatives survive as a viable enterprise.

During his time in the European Parliament as a MEP (1999-2020), he was derided as a comic character – an annoyance rather than a serious political force. In June, when the next European elections are held, the parliament that emerges will likely be moulded in his image. National populist and far-right parties will form powerful groupings, with the left, centre and Greens losing control of the policy process. Sacrosanct stances on immigration and climate change will be stalled or reversed. The ridiculed and reviled British Eurosceptic has proved to be the precursor of a Faragist Europe.

If he returns to front-line British politics, Farage will focus on challenging policies that cannot be democratically legitimated. Uncontrolled immigration and environmentalist nostrums that accelerate the decline in living standards by raising the cost of energy will be his principal targets.

Populism at present is the return to politics of questions a progressive consensus has proscribed as irrational or immoral. Voters who pose these questions are dismissed as simpletons blindly obeying demagogic “dog-whistles”. As in Europe, the effect of treating one’s fellow citizens with patronising contempt is to secure the political space in which populists operate. Farage’s resurgence comes with obvious dangers. Wedded to a free-market agenda, he lacks a workable programme for government. His attitude to Vladimir Putin and his regime is alarmingly complacent. Yet when progressives deride Farage, they are railing against their own creation.

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There are more intelligent ways of responding to populist insurgencies. In Germany, the BSW, Sahra Wagenknecht’s left-conservative party, has been officially recognised as a group in the Bundestag, allowing it access to state funds. Centrist factions have ruled out cooperation, and are trying to restrict its ability to ask parliamentary questions. How much traction it has with voters remains to be seen. However, the issues it addresses – the destructive impact of free trade and mass immigration on the economic security of workers, the role of Green policies in fuelling deindustrialisation, and the dilemmas that come with stalemate in Ukraine – are not going away. One need not agree with all of Wagenknecht’s policies to see her initiative as a healthy expression of resistance to the advance of the far-right AfD.

From one point of view, Keir Starmer’s project was to reconstruct Labour as a left-conservative party. Unfortunately, it was never much more than an electoral strategy. The aim was to undo the damage done by Corbynites and recover voters attracted by the Johnson-led Tories. In future, Labour would be defined by unity and competence. If this was the goal, the project is floundering.

The Rochdale debacle and Labour’s response to the war in Gaza showed a supremely managerial politician fumbling and rudderless, alienating Muslim and Jewish communities, Scottish Labour, and legions of MPs and rank-and-file members. Tilting now towards demanding an unconditional ceasefire in Gaza, the Labour leadership seems even less in control. With no discernible ideology and tracking the Conservatives on most major issues, Starmer’s Labour looks not only unprincipled but inept and divided. What, then, can be expected of it in government?

After the Wellingborough and Kingswood by-elections, where Reform achieved 13 per cent and 10 per cent of the vote respectively, undecided voters have an alternative. With so much of the national electorate estranged and uncommitted, anything between a Labour landslide and a hung parliament is within the bounds of possibility. The gulf between the established political class and the country will continue to grow.

Beyond self-advancement, Farage wants to replace the existing party system. Whether he’ll take up the gauntlet is unclear, perhaps even to himself. I wouldn’t bet against it. If he enters the fray – and he will do so only if he believes Reform UK can have a significant impact on the election – Farage could make history. Again.

[See also: The Trumpian end of the liberal world order]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation