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  1. The Weekend Report
29 June 2024

Reform could haunt a Labour government

Candidates fear the political opportunities that a Starmer administration will create for the right.

By Freddie Hayward

The Reform manifesto is a Trumpian document for a British electorate. It promises a public inquiry into “vaccine harms”, withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, the abolition of net zero targets and the deployment of ex-army officers into the police. Immigrants will have their rights stripped back and “High Intensity Training Camps” will be opened for young offenders. Nigel Farage (interviewed in this week’s New Statesman) accepts the Republican Party idea that a woke deep state is obstructing change: he wants to politicise the civil service by allowing ministers to install their chosen officials.

These policies matter because Reform’s polling numbers have steadily risen since Farage returned to the political front line on 3 June. The party could win a small crop of parliamentary seats next week, including Clacton for Farage. If the Tories do collapse, then expect Reform to fill the vacuum.

Farage’s embrace of Trump – he is due on the campaign trail for the presidential election in November – means that his brand of nationalism is distinctly foreign. Newt Gingrich, the former US House of Representatives speaker, who wrote the Republicans’ 1994 “contract with America”, has praised the Reform manifesto. Farage takes his cues from an insurgent right in Europe and America. He wants Britain to join the nationalist club.

Farage knows there’s no chance Reform will win a large number of seats. Instead, he will claim a mandate based on the raw number of votes to hold Keir Starmer to account for what Reform views as his inevitable failure. (Insiders regard the 3.8 million votes Ukip won in 2015 as a low bar.) Inevitable, the party argues, because Starmer represents a stale, tired consensus that promotes high taxes, high immigration and wasteful spending.

For the past 14 years, Farage has been the Conservatives’ demon. He has stretched and pulled them into his desired shape. He goaded Tory backbenchers into forcing David Cameron to call a referendum on EU membership in 2013. He has gobbled up defectors and kept the Tory leadership in constant fear that he will return to politics every time he retires. Is it now Labour’s turn for the Farage treatment?

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In Houghton le Spring on 27 June, a small Tyne and Wear town near Sunderland where Labour’s shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds grew up, Farage addressed a pint-wielding north-eastern crowd in a concert hall on an industrial estate. Pyrotechnics spurted out sparks as he mounted the stage. It was like a small-scale Taylor Swift concert for pensioners. Burly, mute bouncers, who looked as if they had been pumped up with helium, marked each exit. After Farage was soaked by a McDonald’s banana milkshake in Clacton on 5 June, security is high. One Farage lookalike has got a bodyguard for his own protection.

The cultish adulation Farage receives from his followers is unmatched by any other politician. He bounded around the lectern, with Blairite messianism, claiming an “unease” gripped Britain. “Something is going very, very, very wrong with the country,” he said. Kids are being indoctrinated. Crime is rife. British culture is under threat. Steelworks have gone overseas. Small boats are crossing the Channel. “If it’s not an invasion. What. The. Hell. Is. It?” Farage roared to the grateful crowd.

This type of performance is why several Labour candidates I’ve spoken to believe a Starmer government must counteract his appeal, not least by cutting immigration. “Most of my conversations are with [Reform voters],” one said. Labour has already lent into more hard-line rhetoric. Starmer has spoken about Britain’s “immigration dependency”. Labour politicians say they will “send them back” when asked about what they will do with those who arrive illegally – a phrase that for the past two decades has been the preserve of nativists and racists. That’s a shift in the tone. Or take Starmer’s claim at a Sun newspaper event on 23 June: “I’ll make sure that we’ve got planes going off… back to the countries where people come from… At the moment people coming from countries like Bangladesh are not being removed.” He subsequently stated that he didn’t mean to “cause concern or offence” after upset from British Bangladeshis.

The other problem for Labour is Farage’s growing support among the young. Reform is polling higher than the Tories with 18- to 25-year-olds: YouGov has the party on 13 per cent, compared with the Conservatives’ 6 per cent. Support is higher among 18- to 25-year-olds than 25- to 29-year-olds. Farage told journalists at the rally that his claim immigration was bleeding the housing market attracted rent-sponged youngsters. Then there is his online presence. He is the ultimate meme-able politician. Farage has 804,000 followers on TikTok, compared with Labour’s 207,000 and the Tories’ 67,000. He has engaged the services of Jack Anderton, a 23-year-old right-wing commentator on social media, to furnish his TikTok account. Farage on a combine harvester. Farage laughing at melons. Farage drinking pints at the pub.

The assumption that the young will be forever liberal is collapsing. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is attracting around 30 per cent of the youth vote in France. Farage has praised Andrew Tate, a buff hero to many young men who thrive on his motivational videos, as an “important voice”. Tate has been charged with rape and human trafficking in Romania. Insiders suggest that Farage’s appearance on I’m a Celeb… last year, the first episode in which he appeared was watched by seven million people, was a springboard for this year’s digital assault.

But Farage’s support should not be overstated. He is a conduit for the latent concerns within a large minority. As an issue for voters, mass immigration does not compete with NHS waiting lists or the high cost of living. Farage’s disruptor status means there is a ceiling to his support. (“We’ve apparently got as many ceilings as the Shard,” one party source quipped when I put this to them.) Many voters will never back him because they think he’s too toxic, or too right wing, or because they blame him for Brexit.

The Reform manifesto was written over the past two years when Richard Tice was leader and, insiders say, could be revised now that Farage is in charge. The party is smarting over the push-back against his recent claim that the West “provoked” Putin into invading Ukraine. This is one area where Trumpian nationalism cannot be transposed to the UK. Reform’s polling took a hit following his comments. Revelations about racist comments made by their candidates and activists keep coming. The scrutiny that comes with success is taking effect.

At the rally, the showman was careful to caveat his support for small businesses with a tilt against large transnational corporations. His attack on a rising welfare bill was qualified by a promise to be compassionate to the vulnerable. But the problem is more fundamental than Reform’s pro-business manifesto. Farage rejects left-wing economics – public ownership, for instance – which, when combined with his social conservatism, could see him capture the voters inspired by the Tories’ 2019 platform. His party substitutes wealth taxes and infrastructure investment for smaller government and lower taxes. A crack in his populist appeal.

And yet, Farage is a seismometer for what will dominate politics five, ten years down the line. This is why Labour should be worried. The young don’t turn out. But the young become old. A Labour government would make the right an anti-establishment force. Being anti-woke on campus has already become the new punk. It might be easier for Farage to oppose a Labour government than his Tory friends and allies.

The Conservative Party is riven with factions that resent each other. Their incompetence is Labour’s gift. If Reform can assemble the activists, councillors, local branches and online army of a modern political party, then a Labour government might find it spends more time fighting Reform than the Tories.

[See also: Biden’s performance should make us grateful for the Deep State]

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