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21 May 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 4:20pm

Where democracy goes to die: how Nigel Farage copied Italy’s digital populists

The Brexit Party isn’t a party – it's a business that offers the illusion of democracy while its leader maintains full control. 

By Paolo Gerbaudo

The Brexit Party’s forecast success in the European Elections appears incontrovertible – it is currently polling at 27 per cent, knocking the Conservatives into third place. What remains unclear is whether it could be described as a party at all. According to the typical definition of a party as a voluntary membership organisation that competes for state power via elections, the Brexit Party is an anomaly: it is registered as a company, The Brexit Party Limited, headquartered at 83 Victoria Street, and counts 100,000 registered supporters, but not a single party member.

In a groundbreaking 1999 paper, political scientists Jonathan Hopkin and Caterina Paolucci coined the somewhat clunky term “business firm parties” to describe a new political formation that began to emerge in southern Europe during the mid-1970s.  

Largely due to the entrepreneurial attitude of their leaders, parties including Italy’s Forza Italia and Spain’s UCD began to resemble private firms. The traditional party model of a voluntary organisation with social objectives had been displaced by something different: a private firm in which “the public goods produced are incidental to the… objectives of those leading it”. Put simply, rather than stake a position on delivering social objectives, leaders’ aims had become about maintaining their own grip on power.

Berluconi’s Forza Italia was a parable of the business firm party; it was founded by an Italian media tycoon and bankrolled almost entirely by Berlusconi, who made shrewd use of air time offered by TV channels that he owned. Forza Italia’s swift, top-down decision making and highly effective marketing outfit allowed the party to outcompete Italy’s sluggish former Communist Party.

Today, Nigel Farage’s new venture closely resembles this model of the political party as a self-serving enterprise. Farage explains that he abandoned Ukip because its positions had become too “extreme”. Yet what led him to forge his new outfit may have more to do with his own intolerance of internal party democracy. Ukip was stalked by squabbles and internecine fights. It has lost many of its local councillors, and changed leaders five times since the 2016 referendum.

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The question, writer Richard Seymour asks, is whether the Brexit Party is a party at all. Its constitution holds that the leader can only be deposed by a vote of no confidence by the board that the leader himself appoints. According to Companies House, Brexit Party Limited has three officers: treasurer Phillip Basey, businessman Richard Tice and Nigel Farage. Farage is the only person who can appoint and remove directors. He is in almost complete control of the organisation and its future policies.

As Seymour writes, “the ‘grassroots’ can share content on social media, attend ticketed events at which Farage speaks, and apply to be candidates, but that’s it”. In other words, the formation is deprived of even a minimal semblance of internal democracy. In this, Farage resembles the Freedom Party of his ally Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, which has only two formal members: Geert Wilders, and the Foundation Group Wilders. Political scientists Oscar Mazzoleni and Gerrit Voerman have described it as a “memberless party” – an even more radical evolution of the business firm party.

What Farage’s venture shares with a business firm is lack of a substantive programme or manifesto. In a reversal of common political practice, Farage says the manifesto will be decided after elections (parties typically seek votes on the basis of specific policies that are then supposed to be pursued following elections). The Brexit Party is a political black box, and its voters are expected to have complete trust in Farage’s stewardship.

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Farage came close to backing a second referendum in a potential attempt to revive his own visibility – and perhaps re-launch his career. Right-wing leaders in Europe such as Matteo Salvini share a similar attitude to political matters they cast as problems. Though Salvini rails against migration, for example, his intention seems less about solving the issue than exacerbating it in order to obtain electoral benefits. For politicians like Farage and Salvini, political issues form a marketplace that must be tended in order to reap electoral benefits.

The business firm model is also transforming party financing. Traditional mass parties, Labour and the Conservatives included, once depended on the financial contributions of dues-paying members. But the “Americanisation” of party politics in Europe has turned the party model towards one of electoral-professionalism, where parties are increasingly reliant on funding from a variety of rich donors.

The Brexit Party relies on financial support from businessman Arron Banks, who bankrolled Farage’s lifestyle with a £450,000 donation after the Brexit vote. Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown has called on the Electoral Commission to investigate the finances of the Brexit Party; its Paypal account allows for donations of up to £500, without revealing information about their provenance.

Farage’s new venture replaces many of the democratic characteristics of the traditional mass party, which allowed members a say in policy formation, strategy and leadership, with something altogether less democratic. Yet Farage has continued to wave the banner of direct democracy, taking inspiration from the Five Star Movement, which is renowned for its emphasis on internet-enabled democracy. Farage met with the movement’s co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio in 2015 to learn from the movemen’ts digital strategy. The Five Star Movement is the archetype of a digital party – a form of political organisation that integrates tools like online policy discussions and internet referenda into its internal functioning.

Farage has promised that Brexit Party supporters will be able to take part in decisions through social media discussions and perhaps a dedicated app, similar to the participatory system created by the Five Star Movement known as “Rousseau”, in honour of the French philosopher.

To his supporters, particularly those with low levels of digital proficiency, this will undoubtedly sound exciting – even revolutionary. Yet the Five Star Movement exposes how “digital democracy” often amounts to a sham. Under Beppe Grillo’s leadership, online referendums have often been deployed as a media stunt that suggests unanimous support for particular policies, rather than a tool for providing members with a genuine choice among competing options. Similarly, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party promises voters superficial choices while retaining control over the process and direction of the movement.

The Brexit Party isn’t an isolated phenomenon, but rather the shape of things to come. The business firm formation is being adopted by an ever-greater number of parties on both the left and the right. Like the Brexit Party, Change UK is also registered as a non-trading company: The Independent Group (TIG) Ltd, headed by Gavin Shuker MP.

Part of the reason for this lies in political leaders’ growing aversion towards democratic oversight by party members. Another reason is that traditional party structures, inherited from the 18th and 19th centuries, have not managed to adapt to the frenetic pace and power battles of our times. If societies are to avoid the creep of the business party, it will be imperative to revive, and update, the truly democratic party form.

Paolo Gerbaudo is director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy (2018). He tweets @paologerbaudo