“Just winning on Brexit isn’t enough,” boomed Nigel Farage, from the top of a double-decker bus. “We’ve got to change a two-party system that has let us down!” Farage and his team had just pulled into Southend-on-Sea. It was one of their last stops on a European election campaign that has run through the heart and soul of Brexit country
This was not a campaign to convert the undecided. From the very outset, Farage and his young team had taken a decision to focus heavily on core Brexit areas, with one objective in mind: maximise turnout. It is the same strategy that Farage employed in 2014, when UKIP won the elections outright, and then again in 2015, when UKIP took nearly 13% of the national vote, complicating life for the major parties.
Farage, visibly angry, shouted through a megaphone to the crowds below: “We’ve got to sweep out of Westminster so many of those MPs who have wilfully defied the democratic will of the people of our country! We’ve got to change politics for good! We need a democratic revolution! Let’s go do it!”
Below, the crowds chanted back. “Nigel! Nigel! Nigel!” Standing next to Farage, filming everything was his digital team, which has completely dominated the online space throughout this campaign. The speech was edited and online within the hour.
Farage looked tired, but nor has he ever looked stronger. Of all the politicians in Britain today, perhaps only Jeremy Corbyn could muster a similar fervour and energy from the grassroots, though even he would struggle to match what was on display in Southend-on-Sea.
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At one point a fire engine pulled alongside and tooted its horn, with those inside giving Farage a thumbs up. A few moments later a gang of teenagers whizzed past on bicycles shouting “Brexit! Brexit! Brexit!” It was a familiar scene and one that has played out across England’s small towns and coastal communities, which have long felt left behind, left out and now completely betrayed by the failure of their politicians to deliver what was asked for nearly three years ago.
Farage’s new vehicle, the Brexit Party, was only launched six weeks ago but is already a serious force. With more than 100,000 registered supporters, millions in funding and considerable potential in blue and red territory, Farage finally has something that he has never had before: a serious, professional, well-funded and well-organised movement.
This weekend, the Brexit Party will probably emulate his earlier triumph in 2014, when he led the UK Independence Party to winning the elections to the European Parliament; UKIP was the first party other than Labour and the Conservatives to win a nationwide election since 1910. This time around, Farage might do it with support from as many as one in three voters and along the way become the first politician in Britain’s history to win two elections with two different parties.
Farage’s return is a clear symptom of his opponents’ complete failure to make sense of our post-referendum world. As a result, they are baffled and wrong-footed by his return. Farage has outplayed them all. But rather than meet this moment with imagination, too many in our politics and media have shown that they have no imagination at all. Rather than chart a new course, many have sought shelter in the dusty attic from which they plucked the unsuccessful arguments of 2016.
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Instead of meeting Farage-ism head on, his opponents have recycled uninspiring, managerial and incredibly weak arguments about process; about how parties are funded, about Arron Banks, about money. It is telling that this week a former Prime Minister, leader of the Labour Party and political heavyweight, chose to focus his attack against Farage on the issue of PayPal. Ideas have left the building.
Future historians will point to how the liberal Left made two fateful miscalculations about Farage and indeed populism more generally. The first was to assume this was but a fleeting protest movement not rooted in deep structural shifts within our societies; they considered it a passing ‘blip’, a brief stop on the journey to a new liberal, pro-European and cosmopolitan world order.
This miscalculation, encouraged by some academics, has been devastating for the Left because it has prevented people from really interrogating the appeal of these movements. If politics is reduced to a waiting game, a conveyor belt, waiting for the old white people to die, then you do not need to engage with the grievances that are driving these movements forward. Liberal progressives have long bought into the notion that the arc of history must inevitably bend in their direction, yet this is an incredibly simplistic interpretation of reality.
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The second miscalculation, rooted in questionable Marxist assumptions about what makes people tick, is that all of this awkward populism stuff can be squashed through transactional appeals to people’s economic interests. The evidence for this claim is similarly weak and it is undermined by the reality of everyday life. People do not die for GDP. We routinely underestimate their continuing attachment to the nation state and to their wider tribe.
Both of these errors have been on full display as people have struggled to react to Farage. “Go on Nigel!” boomed a voice over my shoulder, as I followed the Eurosceptic veteran walk the streets of Southend. It was interesting to watch. What can be seen on days like this is that few people know Farage but they clearly feel close to Farage the idea – the idea of standing up to the establishment, of giving the finger to Westminster, shifting power and sovereignty back to ‘people like them’, opposing distant institutions that are not of these islands, and defending Britain’s national identity, ways of life, culture and traditions. There is a lot that Farage could say but does not need to say. People have formed their own image of Farage-ism.
The appeal of this movement has never been easy to measure or define. While the Left points to xenophobia and warns about ‘fascism’, the Right mutters something quietly about charisma. But Farage-ism has always been much deeper than either account suggests. Anybody who has spent time within this milieu knows that Farage’s followers are neither fascists nor aimless protestors.
Most of them, as we know from several studies, share a cluster of intensely-held concerns; they care deeply about a loss of national sovereignty, the clear lack of control over immigration, a political system that no longer looks or feels responsive to citizens and a wider dismissal of the one thing that they cherish more than anything else: the national community.
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Farage has wrapped these concerns in a particular blend of Englishness which, at times, has ventured into the darker underbelly of nationalism. It is Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt, the Blitz Spirit, Private Walker, Del Boy and Fat Les all rolled into one; rebellious, angry and disillusioned but also defiant, redemptive, sarcastic, dogged, and, occasionally, triumphant. It is shaped by a national identity that, ever since 1707, has defined itself against continental Europe.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Farage has always been strongest in areas of England that gave rise to the most serious rebellions against elites hundreds of years ago. There are cultural roots to this movement that cannot be captured in surveys or focus groups.
All of this has given Farage deep but not wide support. He is a concentrated populist not a catch-all politician. He has struggled to convert the professional middle-class, the young and Britain’s ethnic minorities, although a significant number did vote for Brexit and attend Brexit Party rallies. But he has connected strongly with the country’s pensioners, blue-collar workers, the self-employed and ‘true blue’ Tories who no longer believe that the Conservative Party is what its name suggests.
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But if there is one group that matters more than most to Farage then it is the skilled working-class, those who were among the most likely to vote for Brexit. At the very heart of Farage’s rebooted revolt on the Right stand the nation’s factory workers, mechanics, electricians, plumbers and the self-employed small business owners.
They are the people who pollsters call the ‘C2s’, who in earlier years were crudely lumped together under the label ‘Essex Man’ or who today might fit under the similarly crude ‘Greggs Guys’. These are the aspirational ones, the hard-workers who lean Left on economics but lean Right on culture and identity, who want to level the economic playing field, want people and business to play by the rules but who also desperately want to leave the EU, slow immigration and get tough on crime. They feel that a way of life is slipping away, they loathe nothing more than being made to feel like they have been duped, and they have had enough.
They are the people who look up to the professional and socially liberal middle-class and see those who, in the words of Orwell, would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God Save the Queen’ than stealing from a poor box. And they are the people who look down at the unemployed and those who would rather take benefits than subscribe to the things that drive blue-collar Britain forward; dignity, pride, respect, ambition, decency and graft.
For these voters, Farage is far more resonant today than he ever was before the referendum. Before the events of 2016 he appealed to their instinctive patriotism, social conservatism and support for leaving the EU. But ever since then he has appealed to something else, something that runs deep within these communities and which has become far more potent amid parliament’s failure to deliver Brexit. It is a strong, moral creed that has long put heavy emphasis, whether win or lose, on respecting the rules: it is the British sense of fair play.
Seen through the eyes of these voters, the failure of their elected representatives to deliver a meaningful Brexit marks not just a failure of governance but a failure to uphold and respect something that is fundamentally central to our national character.
This failure was perhaps always inevitable. One of the realities of post-referendum Britain is that the corridors of power are in the hands of losers who were used to feeling like winners. But the longer those who lost the 2016 referendum fudge, stall, conspire, delay or block, the stronger Farage becomes. There are few things that the Brits like less than sore losers; there is little they value more than playing by the rules.
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All of this has brought the Brexit Party a coalition of voters who will push the party to new heights this weekend: an outer-layer of disillusioned Eurosceptic Tories who have long viewed Farage as a politically convenient one-night stand; and an inner-layer of more fervent supporters who are with him for the long haul, who genuinely believe that Farage-ism offers more than just a handful of populist slogans.
These voters are not all ex-Conservatives. While nearly three-quarters of those who plan to vote for the Brexit Party this weekend voted Conservative in 2017, hidden within the Brexit Party electorate is a small but significant number of Labour leavers, Liberal Democrats and people who usually shun elections.
Still, all of this is more than enough for Farage to exert a profound influence on multiple fronts: to strongly shape the internal politics of the Conservative Party, to drive the Tories toward a harder vision of Brexit, to then possibly cost the centre-Right the next general election and pave the way for Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn and the most radically Left-wing government that Britain has ever seen. Future historians will trace much of this to the influence of a man who has still not been elected onto the green benches in the House of Commons.
What happens this weekend will underline how Farage was always closer to the median voter than the social and economic liberals who dream of a British Macron are willing to accept. His time is now while theirs is yet to arrive. While the Brexit Party will soar, Change UK will tank. A revitalised Leave electorate will once again feel triumphant while a divided Remain camp will be forced to regroup, re-think and stare at an awkward question: how on earth has Nigel Farage outflanked them once again?
Matthew Goodwin is the co-author of ‘National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy‘ (Pelican)