Today, the voters of Peterborough choose a new MP – having been the first constituency ever to get rid of their old one through a recall petition.
They may also be the first constituency ever to elect a Brexit Party MP. This would break new ground. UKIP at its height won two Westminster by-elections, but both were triggered by existing MPs (Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless) who’d defected to UKIP from the Conservative Party.
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However, if the Brexit Party wins today then it will have won from nowhere – and that would raise a crucial question: where next? Received wisdom dictates that they’ll follow the same path that UKIP took five years ago – win a Euro-election, and some other elections, but then fail to breakthrough at the next general election.
Here are five pieces of evidence to suggest the new party could improve on that:
1. The Brexit Party did significantly better in the 2019 Euro-election than UKIP did in 2014, winning 31.6% of the vote in Great Britain as opposed to 27.5% (and despite a residual UKIP vote of 3.3%).
2. The Brexit Party was launched on April 12th. To have achieved any significant level of voter recognition – let alone win a UK-wide election – in so short a period of time is remarkable.
3. The Party didn’t just win last month; it won convincingly. No UK party has won more than 30% of the vote in a Euro-election since 1999.
4. Unlike UKIP, the Brexit Party’s Euro-election performance has already translated into a lead in a national opinion poll, which asked who voters would opt for in the next general election.
5. Brexit remains the most important issue in UK politics and any early election would be dominated by the issue.
Of course, a lot could (and will) change over the next 12 months – starting with the leader of the Conservative Party. However, in this Parliament, the ability of a new Conservative PM to take Britain out of the EU is highly uncertain. If he or she fails, like Theresa May, or concedes a second referendum, then expect those Tories who lent their votes to Farage last month to make a permanent switch.
As for Labour, it’s clear that its fence-sitting strategy on Brexit is failing. It can either continue to be squeezed from both sides or topple over into Remain territory – both of which would provide opportunities for the Brexit Party.
Habitual non-voters are another potential source of support – after all, it was their uncharacteristic participation in the Brexit referendum that swung the result. These are people whose base assumption is that voting doesn’t make a difference. Given what’s happened (or, rather, not happened) since the referendum, who can blame them? Of course, few would deny that a Commons majority for the Brexit Party would change things. Indeed, such an outcome would be the most consequential General Election result since 1945. But is it remotely realistic?
If the Tories don’t recover their credibility on Brexit and the anti-Brexit vote stays splintered between Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and Nationalists, then that means plenty of three or four-way contests under a first-past-the-post electoral system. Thus, if the Brexit Party holds on to most of the Leave vote, they could do very well indeed.
The distribution of Leave and Remain voters is another critical factor. If, as appears to be the case, Remain support is more concentrated than the Leave vote (for instance in London, Scotland and university towns), then the Brexit Party would have the edge in a much larger number of English and Welsh constituencies. Don’t forget that though the popular vote in Brexit referendum was split 52:48, Leave was ahead in 410 out of the 650 Westminster constituencies.
But can the Brexit Party overcome its most dangerous enemy – i.e. itself? Even if it doesn’t succumb to the infighting that held UKIP back, it still has the problem that all protest parties have – the perception that they’re not fit for government.
In western Europe, national populist parties are firmly established as part of the political system, but most are failing to make further advances. Sunder Katwala has written about UKIP’s “purple ceiling” – an upper bound to the party’s support that stopped it from winning target seats from Labour and the Conservatives in 2015. UKIP came second in 120 seats, but mostly a long way behind the winner.
To break through, the Brexit Party has to smash the purple ceiling. That means recognising that while many voters are angry, few are hateful. The indications are that Farage and Co. realise that the nasty side of populism isn’t very popular. Hence the party’s carefully-controlled messaging, which is about kicking up at out-of-touch elites, not kicking down at powerless scapegoats.
While the Brexit Party may succeed in fending off charges of racism, it (and Nigel Farage in particular) may have more trouble with another ‘ism’ – Thatcherism. I’m not drawing a moral equivalence between the two ideologies – just pointing out that Right-wing, free market economics is unlikely to appeal to the traditionally Labour-voting Leavers that the Brexit Party needs to win seats.
Writing for BrexitCentral, the ex-Ukipper Patrick O’Flynn (who is the candidate for the Social Democratic Party in Peterborough) congratulates Nigel Farage on his renewed success, but argues that the Brexit Party has been “lumbered, quite unnecessarily, with an avowedly Thatcherite philosophical core”. By way of evidence he quotes from the Brexit Party constitution, as made available on the Electoral Commission website. The document describes the party as a “classical liberal Party” which will, among other objectives, “seek to diminish the role of the state”.
To be sure, there’s a difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism. The constitution also speaks of “providing protection for those genuinely in need”, so it’s not entirely anti-statist. Nevertheless, if one looks beyond the Brexit debate, the big gap in the British party system is crying out for a party that represents people who lean somewhat to the Left on economic issues and somewhat to the Right on cultural issues.
If it wants to avoid being stuck with the Thatcherite label, then this is where the Brexit Party needs to position itself. So far, its near-exclusive focus on Brexit has meant not having to make the choice. But this grace period is fast running out – it can’t fight a general election as a serious contender without a full manifesto.
It could do a lot worse than start with the Social Democratic Party’s New Declaration, which Giles Fraser talks about here. But the Brexit Party also needs a small number of ‘pledge card policies’. By this I don’t just mean things like fulsome support for the NHS, but commitments that other parties, and especially Labour, can’t match.
A clear commitment to Brexit is obviously one of those, but the others need to paint a picture of how ‘taking back control’ might actually make a difference. I suspect that Singapore-style free trade fantasies won’t be what brings out the vote in places like Clacton, Thanet, Bolsover and Lowestoft.
A more appealing platform would start with taking back control from London, not just Brussels. There should be an elected mayor with executive power in every community, not just the big cities. That would clear the way for a much smaller House of Commons – a cut of not just 50 MPs, but hundreds. Taking an axe to the bloated House of Lords would also be part of the package – and, of course, there’d be no more need for MEPs. In short: we’d have politicians that are fewer in number and close enough to home to keep an eye on.
The Brexit Party should promise to bring the money back home too. Currently, infrastructure spending is massively skewed towards London – a ‘fair shares guarantee’ would equalise funding across the country and rip-up the self-fulfilling assumptions that bias investment into the capital on the grounds that it has a more productive economy (well, yeah).
If the Brexit Party wants a tax-cutting agenda, then that too should be directed at left-behind Britain. So the priority should be cutting taxes on business investment in ex-industrial, coastal and isolated communities. If necessary, find the money by axing tax breaks and subsidies for property speculation and debt-fuelled ‘financial engineering’.
Alternatively, the Party could major on ‘tax cuts for training’ – linking lower taxes for business directly to the amount of in-work training opportunities they provide to employees of all ages. If that requires pump-priming, then shift the tax burden onto businesses that do very little for blue collar workers, like absentee landlords and online advertisers. This could go hand-in-hand with a shake-up of the universities, by shifting resources from the ropiest ‘academic’ qualifications to high quality technical education – especially courses that can be combined with paid employment.
The Brexit Party also needs an offer on housing. It’s a potentially tricky issue for them, with natural supporters in the South of England and elsewhere worried about unchecked development. So instead of the top-down imposition of housing targets, make a deal: empower communities to buy land at agricultural-use prices and let them design the houses to be built on it. Furthermore, allow them to sell the plots at whatever discount they see fit and give local first-time buyers first refusal – thus helping keep communities and families together.
There are arguments that could be made against all of these policies, but making them in an election would force other parties into defending vested interests – and the record of a deeply unpopular and incompetent establishment. If the Brexit Party can present itself as the party of change, then it is in with a chance.
Earlier this week, it announced its first non-Brexit policy – to save British Steel by turning the private company into a “national strategic corporation”, supported by by the investment of “patient state capital” and “John Lewis style” shared-ownership by its own workers. Whatever one might think of this policy, it cannot be described as free-market fundamentalist. Indeed, it implies a great deal of state intervention. If this is more than a one-off reaction to the news agenda, then it indicates a decidedly non-Thatcherite direction for the Brexit Party.
It’s too early to tell, of course. The party may yet prefer to serve as a 1980s re-enactment society, in which case it will follow UKIP into obscurity.
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