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19 June 2024

Nigel Farage and the populist peril

The Reform surge is bad news for the Tories – but it also threatens Labour’s summer of hope.

By Andrew Marr

These will be remembered as the unseasonably turbulent weeks which changed British politics dramatically, laying out a new landscape for the rest of the 2020s. The defining tension is no longer the clash between Labour and Tory or left and right, but that of centrist government trying hard to hold the line against a right-wing populist insurgency.

The stakes could not be higher. If a Keir Starmer government fails to deliver, Britain is heading towards continental-style nationalism, a trajectory that one day ends in community conflict. Nigel Farage, the Trump champion, now says he wants to be the leader of a national campaign for real change and become prime minister after the next election. Nobody is laughing.

Fourteen years of zigzagging, incoherent, selfish Tory government followed by one of the worst election campaigns anyone can remember have brought us here. So too, a fiercely targeted and disciplined Labour Party campaign which has, quite remarkably, so far survived four weeks of deeply hostile interrogation. So far.

Not the least of Rishi Sunak’s political miscalculations, it’s now clear, has been the election timing. Had he waited until November, Farage would have been too engaged with the US Republicans to return to British politics. The surge of Reform UK today is largely down to yet another Tory blunder.

Meanwhile, below the headline polling, there has been a two-way shift in the political mood. On the one hand, a yearning for normality, order and common sense; this is driving the left-centrism of Starmer’s Labour. On the other, there’s an angry thirst for radical change, including anti-immigrant populism.

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And each is a different emotional reaction to the same thing – British national decline.

The headline polling would suggest we are likely to get a decade of a calm, quietly rebuilding Labour government; I would not be so sure. James Kanagasooriam of Focaldata has been promoting his “sandcastle” theory of politics. We are in, he says, a period of unprecedented democratic instability during which electoral coalitions that seem impressive can be swept away at a moment’s notice. As he points out, thinking of Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson, “The space between hagiography and obituary is becoming shorter.” The question is: why?

First, ties between voters and parties are much weaker. As Kanagasooriam notes, back in the Sixties almost half of us had a “very strong” party identification but by the heyday of the Blair years, that was down to 10 per cent. So the number of voters switching parties between elections is rising rapidly: “Our latest polling at Focaldata suggests one in three voters are set to flip next month. We are in a state of permanent revolution.”

Isn’t this what you’d expect in a country without the economic strength to provide the security and services people feel they deserve? Politics hasn’t delivered. We will keep lurching across the dial until it does, from a quietist “just make it stop” yearning for dully competent administration to a furious “tear all the bastards down” populism.

The obvious conclusion for Labour is that if it fails in office the backlash will be horrendous. On day one, if elected, Starmer will stand outside Downing Street and promise, à la Tony Blair, that he won with a “changed Labour Party” and will govern as “a changed Labour Party”. So much for Tory journalistic paranoia about a wild lurch to the left.

But, as I have argued before, he will need space to raise more money and to tilt towards a better trading relationship with the EU. It was interesting that Wes Streeting refused to rule out increases in council tax on the BBC on 16 June – and indeed, with so many councils on the verge of bankruptcy, it will have to rise, surely. Streeting added: “A manifesto is not a spending review. A manifesto is not five years’ worth of budgets.” He knows, as does his leader, that blandly reassuring language aimed at winning English Tory switchers won’t cut it in government.

Already in the campaign there is a problem with Scotland, where Labour is not facing the Tories but the SNP to its left. Decisions such as keeping the two-child benefit cap make some Labour candidates north of the border despair.

With a recent poll showing the SNP, however cash-strapped and scandal-plagued, still managing a projected 37 seats, down from 48, and the battle in Scotland now incredibly close, this is causing tension at the heart of the Labour machine: after all, Starmer has said all along that the road to Downing Street runs through Scotland. The SNP may yet be the big beneficiary of Labour’s decision to lean so hard towards Middle England. Until polling day, the Conservatives have the bigger unravelling coalition to try to keep together; after 4 July, the problem will be Labour’s.

Right now, Britain’s anti-Conservative mood is being expertly channelled by Labour strategists. Targeting by constituency and enjoying the impact of Reform UK on vulnerable Tory seats, and of the Liberal Democrats elsewhere, Labour may be able to parlay support in the high thirties into that fabled “supermajority”. But remember the sandcastle theory. A tide that runs out so fast can whip back in again at equal speed.

That is for the future. People around Keir Starmer say they are thinking hard about the general election of 2028-29. They insist there is a plan for the first six weeks, and the first six months, of government. There had better be. As Sunak could tell them, Britain is no longer a forgiving country.

I believe Starmer has it in him to be a radical prime minister if only, perhaps, because he realises that if he isn’t he will be an untransforming single-termer – or, to put it brutally, a failure. Is it possible, though, to be radical from the centre, even if leaning to the left? Fiscally and rhetorically, his “first steps” are small ones.

The point is not the size of the stride, however, but the direction of the walk. Making first steps towards a rebuilt public health and education system, or a policy for green growth and more housing, takes you within a few years to a very different place. By 2028, unless we are overwhelmed by overseas threats, we should be in much better shape.

All this must be done while holding together the centre. I don’t think this precludes bolder taxes on the very rich, or a closer trading relationship with the EU. After discussing a possible “association agreement” with Brussels in last week’s essay, I note that Starmer’s language about “tearing down barriers to business and trade”, while carefully vague, is leaning in that direction. Would Britain swallow that, and some modest extra taxation around the edge, in return for dentists, more schoolteachers and shorter waiting lists? I think so.

But there is still a deep problem of language and narrative. It isn’t a lack of boosterish “sunlit uplands” optimism in the Labour campaign – that, these days, is just realistic. In office, Labour will need to speak about the country’s identity, a sense of belonging and clear direction, offering us a story about ourselves we can emotionally connect to. When he talks of “service” Starmer sometimes comes close. But we need more emotion, less caution – and a more fluent use of English plain-speak.

This will be needed first in the Commons, I suppose. Every calculation should be hedged with caution, and we can all see that the Labour headline numbers are drifting gently down week by week, not in favour of any visible Tory revival but matched by improvements among the smaller parties. So what kind of parliament might emerge in early July?

First, it will be a scattered and demoralised opposition. Reform UK will find it very hard to do any kind of parliamentary deal with the Tories. Suella Braverman and Priti Patel would embrace Nigel Farage; Kemi Badenoch and James Cleverly are fiercely opposed. Until they have resolved this toxic disagreement, the Tories are unlikely to recover any momentum. As Farage himself admits (though his story seems to change a bit on this) the reshaping of the right won’t be quick.

But if Farage enters parliament as one of just a handful of Reform MPs and yet has the support of, say, one in five voters, then we are in a new political and media world. Farage will get a national pulpit even bigger than the one he’s so far enjoyed during the campaign. Running on a platform of huge tax and spending cuts, and “kick the migrants back” – a kind of ultra-Tory rightism – he will have the support of much of the Telegraph Group and GB News.

Add to that his expert handling of TikTok, and exchanges across the floor of the Commons may no longer reflect British political debate. Farage could find himself sounding like the leader of the opposition… not at Westminster, but in the country.

What happens to the Tories? At 190 years old, their party hasn’t been the most successful electoral machine in our history by accident. Its ability to adapt, its lack of a hard ideology and its insatiable interest in power should make us very cautious about writing it off. Even from a base of, say, around 100 seats, it can rebuild and recover. Much below that, however, I’m not so sure. A whole Tory mental infrastructure of covertly funded think thanks, clammy teenage ideologues and ambitious bag-carriers will be blown away overnight. Well, boohoo.

Would a Labour government with an enormous majority hold together in parliament, though? There are a few ambitious people on that side as well, rumour has it; and nothing like enough jobs for them. It’s different because a freshly elected prime minister with a huge national mandate would command so much initial authority and loyalty. Already, every time Starmer appears he seems just a few inches taller.

But one issue to look to for dissent is electoral reform. Apart from Ed Davey cheerfully flinging himself at regular intervals into filthy water, we haven’t had a lot from the Liberal Democrats. On the morning after the vote, we’ll be talking about them more, even if polling suggesting that they might overtake the Tories as the official opposition is, so far, being taken with fistfuls of salt by both parties.

A new parliament containing many Lib Dems and the first Reform MPs, with millions of frustrated voters at their backs, plus Tories reflecting on the battering first-past-the-post has given them, would be a parliament keener on electoral reform than any before. A slew of the most influential trade unions already back proportional representation, and at the 2022 party conference Labour delegates voted overwhelmingly for it. Starmer has promised to address this. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The first-past-the-post system is brutal. There is still time for narrowing polls and a shock result. We should expect increasingly violent attacks on Starmer as a liar, and an increasingly strong Tory focus on tax. In the end, I don’t think this will shift things much: we are heading for what we think we are heading for.

Electoral reform would have given us a different election, opening the door to Reform UK and other varieties of elected outrage. If Labour fails, imagine a landscape over which both Farage and George Galloway, or their successors, are rampaging. We are not living in comfortable times, and wiseacre commentators who complain this campaign is boring miss the bigger picture. This summer marks a pivot in our national life; it offers hope. It also promises great danger ahead.

[See also: Keir Starmer is no hero but he is a winner]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation