New Times,
New Thinking.

Why Reform’s manifesto doesn’t need to add up

The party was never going to win - it's campaigning to be the opposition.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Guess who’s back, back again. Only you don’t need to guess – not if you saw Nigel Farage’s eye-catching (if cringey) TikTok where he bobs and raps along, channelling his inner Eminem. And judging by the buoyant laughter as the Reform leader opened today’s big event with that very line, much of the audience had definitely seen the video.

This wasn’t a manifesto launch. Farage was very clear about that. When people hear the word “manifesto”, he said, they immediately associate it with “lies”. The Reform document of policies it would like to see enacted is instead a “contract” with the people. It is called “our contract with you”. You can trust a contract, you see. Unlike a manifesto.

The other reason the Reform contract isn’t a manifesto is that a manifesto is a programme for government, and Reform is not going to be the next government. Farage was very clear about that too: “We’re not pretending we’re going to win this election,” he admitted.

This isn’t exactly news. In every UK general election for the past century, there have only been two parties that could plausibly win. But the Liberal Democrats and Green Party still publish manifestos. It’s all to maintain a pretence that, were a million-to-one bolt of fate to strike and parachute them into government, they would have a coherent policy platform ready.

Reform is not doing that, at least not in this election. Instead, Reform is running to the be the opposition.

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Farage has seized upon Friday’s shock YouGov poll – so far the only one to show Reform in second place, with support crossing over to one point above the Conservatives – to argue his is the only party that can hold an incoming Labour government to account. The Liberal Democrats, who look set to have around 50 times more MPs than Reform (50 to Reform’s one, that is), are far too similar to Labour, he said. The Tories, meanwhile, are too busy fighting each other to offer meaningful opposition. So if the desperate Conservative scaremongering – “don’t hand Keir Starmer a blank cheque” – is resonating, then Farage’s message is to back him instead.

This explains Merthyr Tydfil as the somewhat offbeat launch destination. The contract was unveiled not in Clacton, where Farage is standing, or a seat in northern England symbolic of the Red Wall’s turn to Brexit and Boris Johnson in 2019, but in South Wales.

It’s not just that Wales voted for Brexit, with Leave winning out across the Valleys, making it fertile ground for a Ukip successor party. It’s that while the rest of the country is looking to Labour as a change from the status quo, with “Change” quite literally the slogan of the Labour election campaign, in Wales the party has been in power for 25 years. If you want a place that is symbolic of the need for a powerful Labour establishment to be challenged, Wales is it.

It is, of course, up for debate whether it is remotely sensible to be talking about Reform as the opposition when, as stated, it will have a fraction of the MPs of its rivals. And running for the opposition is no excuse for your policies not adding up. If you thought the other parties had been playing fast and loose with figures to make their economic plans seem convincing (Labour’s commitment to no tax increases on working people, the Tories’ promise of tax cuts, the Liberal Democrats’ optimism in how much their proposed tax rises would bring in), wait until you meet Reform’s £90bn tax cuts. Yes, the party has published its costings, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said these are out “by a margin of tens of billions of pounds per year”. It’s the Liz Truss mini-budget on steroids.

Other highlights of the manifesto – sorry, contract – include removing any need for the Conservatives’ controversial Rwanda plan by simply picking up illegal migrants who try to cross the channel in small boats and taking them back to France, and ensuring any teaching of British imperialism or slavery is “paired with the teaching of a non-European occurrence of the same to ensure balance”. And that’s before we get to the “net zero” immigration plan of one in, one out, to replace the existing net zero climate legislation, which Reform would scrap, focusing environmental policy instead on “more tree planting, more recycling and less single use plastics” (trying to tackle man-made climate change does not need to be a priority, the Reform website argues, because “our air has never been cleaner”. Rising levels of CO2 are not a problem, because “CO2 is essential for photosynthesis to enable plant growth”).

None of this has to be workable. It doesn’t even need to make sense on its own terms – in fact, Farage is no doubt counting on the howls of frustration from experts across the board to keep his party in the headlines until polling day. The aim is to pick up as many votes as possible – from disillusioned Tories, disappointed Brexiteers and people of all political stripes who can see a mammoth Labour majority coming and don’t want Keir Starmer to get cocky – and then use that vote share for two things. One: to agitate for proportional representation as a “more democratic” voting system that could benefit a fringe party like Reform in the future. Two: to give Farage himself a platform for whatever he wants to do next.

Notably, despite Farage joking about being a “Johnny-come-lately” when it comes to the contract document, it is his face on the cover. Guess who’s back, back again.

[See also: The Tories’ fate was decided long before the D-Day blunder]

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