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  1. Election 2024
4 June 2024

What Farage’s return means for Labour

Opposition figures who welcome his return to front-line politics should be careful what they wish for.

By Freddie Hayward

The argument that Nigel Farage is a political dud because he has lost seven parliamentary contests is wrong. He is the most consummate politician since Tony Blair. He commands politics. He taps into what a significant minority of voters think. He predicts, and then moulds, the debate. He was the first to raise the migrant crossings in the Channel. He anticipated the West’s move against China. He campaigned for Brexit for two decades before it happened.

Much of this was possible because he is also the love child of the parliamentary press. The media adores him because he charismatically dismantles the dreary received wisdom of the political establishment. He makes good TV and copy. Conflict is news in a way consensus is not. In a campaign such as this, he will travel.

And yet, he is the media’s puppeteer. He speaks a language that people understand. His pint-wielding repartee cuts through. And people hate him, for sure. His toxicity places a hard ceiling on his support. Fifty-four per cent don’t like him. But 30 per cent do, and that’s enough to cause serious problems for Rishi Sunak. Farage can harvest a loyal crop of voters who support him because he channels a resentment towards the status quo that others struggle to articulate. His rant yesterday that kids today can’t date D-Day was effective, not because people care about D-Day, but because they think the establishment has forgotten something they thought was important. His failed quests to become an MP should not distract from Brexit, nor that Ukip received 3.9 million votes in 2015. His influence, so far, has been extra-parliamentary.

At the press conference yesterday, in which he usurped Richard Tice as leader of Reform with the effortless cruelty of the free market for which his party should be better known, he put immigration at the centre of the election. He said the political class had failed. And he’s right: for 14 years voters have put those who promised lower immigration in power only for it to reach record levels.

As for Labour, those I’ve spoken to welcome his return. He will, the thinking goes, split the Tory vote. But they shouldn’t be so hasty. Farage’s comeback should make them nervous. He could challenge their embrace of the economic consensus. He is the most articulate version of the right-wing critique Keir Starmer will inevitably encounter.

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Farage has been clear his return is not about this election, but the next one. With the Greens stirring on the left, and Reform gathering on the right, a future Labour government faces a mounting, if still relatively small, anti-establishment force. And that’s before we consider whether Farage manages to take over the Conservative Party – and all the resources that would mean.

Farage’s politics are increasingly international. He thrives on the European and American stages. In April, as the Belgian police tried to shut down the National Conservative conference in Brussels, he looked gleeful. In the US, he has become “Brexit man” and Trump’s support act. That conspiracy-laden, anti-system, culturally anxious politics is the direction he wants to take the UK. Even if voters aren’t there yet – the NHS polls higher than gun rights – that does not mean they won’t be eventually.

However long you think the UK can resist America’s polarised politics, this should be a warning to Labour. The party’s downfall could come from Farage’s rise. With a deracinated Conservative Party, Labour could find that Farage, or at least the politics he represents, becomes its true opposition. And, potentially, its successor.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: South Africa election: the tragedy of the ANC’s collapse]

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