Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party have an offer for left-behind Britain. The new party, which finished first at the European Parliament elections and is averaging 22% in the Westminster polls, has unveiled how it plans to fight a general election that could come as early as this autumn – by morphing into a regionalist party.
It proposes to withhold payments to the EU, slash overseas aid and scrap HS2 high-speed rail in order to deliver £200 billion of investment to regions outside London, improve transport links and broadband across the country and scrap business rates for new firms outside the capital. It is casting itself, as Freddie Sayers noted, “as the party of the regions, pitted against an over-dominant capital”.
The Brexit Party’s tilt towards regional grievances is the latest example in Western democracies of how a sharpening divide between what the French geographer Christophe Guilluy calls the “metropole and the periphery” is rapidly being politicised.
It’s a familiar enough refrain now. On one side are those who can afford to live in the big cities; they are strongly liberal and have little interest in rebalancing the settlement. On the other, are those who are stuck in the periphery and outer regions – or who choose to live there – who have seen life sucked out of their once thriving communities. Left behind and left out, these voters know that our ‘open’ cities are actually among the most ‘closed’ places on earth.
The problem for the main parties is that this narrative resonates. Whisper it quietly: the Brexit Party’s offer is not a bad reply to the referendum result. The Leave vote was always anchored as much in regional inequalities as conservative Euroscepticism.
Such policies are also not a million miles away from proposals that have been put forward by think-tanks such as IPPR North, the Social Mobility Commission and former prime minister, Gordon Brown, who rightly suggested that we should have a royal commission to think more seriously about those regional divides. So why is it the populists and not the main parties who have translated this discussion into concrete proposals?
The pivot suggests that Farage and the Brexit Party have realised that their future lies not in affluent southern Tory seats but in blue-collar, left-behind Britain. “There are many seats in the country”, Farage told his supporters last week, “especially Labour-held seats, where we are the main challenger”. The Brexit Party will contest every seat at the next election and it looks like those Labour redoubts scattered along coastal England, in the Midlands, the struggling north and Wales will be key targets as a result.
The seats most conducive to the Brexit Party can be identified by using data that I compiled with Caitlin Milazzo for a book on UKIP, which turned out to be an extremely good predictor of how Farage’s party performed in 2015. We have subsequently demonstrated how there is a strong relationship between support for the two, and so the data paints a pretty reliable picture of where the Brexit Party will strike a chord.
The picture highlights peripheral, unheard Britain – towns, communities and neighbourhoods which have been neglected and ignored for decades. There are typically larger numbers of working-class residents, pensioners, white voters and people with few or no formal qualifications. Most have been sidelined by the economic transformation of Britain over the past 30 years and battered by the winds of globalisation. There has been very little inward investment.
They include coastal communities such as Clacton, Great Yarmouth, and Boston and Skegness, and then pass through struggling communities in Wales like Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil, up to Ashfield in Eastern England and into Blackpool and Sunderland in the North. Spend one-hour in these seats and the question of why so many people turned away from the main parties to vote for UKIP, and then Brexit, is not a hard one to answer. These are the areas that are suffering from a ‘double whammy’: few people with skills and qualifications but also few local opportunities.
Many of the Brexit Party’s most favourable seats are currently in Labour hands. Of the 20 most favourable, no fewer than 16 were won by Labour in 2017; of the 50 most favourable, 36 are held by Labour. They include seats such as Yvette Cooper’s seat of Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford and other northern Labour seats such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Wentworth and Dearne, and Easington. In many of these places, Labour’s MPs have large majorities, which have been built up over many years. But this is not the case in all of them.
There are also seats where the margins are closer and where a strong Brexit Party vote could easily make life far more complicated for both Labour and the Conservatives. There are, for example, northern and more marginal seats that should normally be in Conservative sights, such as Ashfield, Great Grimsby, Scunthorpe and Dudley North. Even if the Brexit Party were to only poll around the 10% mark this would seriously complicate the Tory task of capturing these Labour seats.
Nor is Farage starting from scratch. He is already well-known in these areas. Only four years ago, at the 2015 general election, UKIP won only one seat (in Clacton) but finished second in 120 constituencies, 44 of which went to Labour. UKIP easily surpassed 20% of the vote in lots of Labour seats without really trying or targeting them, seats such Barnsley East, Don Valley, Doncaster Central, and Houghton and Sunderland South.
Farage’s relationship with these places was rekindled when, at the European elections this year, many of them put the Brexit Party well ahead of Labour. His party humiliated Labour in its oldest heartlands – Ashfield, Redcar, Merthyr Tydfil, Bolsover and Hartlepool. It won all but a few of the 39 districts in England’s northwest, every district in the northeast and more than doubled Labour’s share of the vote in Wales.
This is not to say that the Brexit Party is about to capture dozens of Labour seats – but the challenge to Labour from Farage at the next election will be stronger than the challenge presented in 2015
The problem for the Tories is that they also need to make inroads into these Leave-voting areas if they are to offset their likely losses to Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Remainia. Yet Brexit Party insiders argue that this will simply never happen because of long established political traditions: voters in these areas will never turn out in large numbers for ‘the Tories’. “If you vote Tory,” Farage declared, “you will get Corbyn and you should stand aside for the Brexit Party who can beat them in those constituencies.”
The claim is not without evidence. In 2017, Theresa May and the Conservatives appealed directly to Brexit voters, hoping to offset losses in Remainia by capturing pro-Brexit seats in Labour’s heartlands. In the end, however, the former happened while the latter never really materialised. The Tories captured just five seats from Labour in places where a majority of people had voted to Leave the EU.
While a handful of Conservative candidates suddenly found themselves representing the good people of Walsall North, Stoke South, Mansfield, Middlesbrough South and Copeland this was simply not enough when set alongside Conservative losses in Remain voting areas.
This time around, a Prime Minister Johnson or Hunt will need to find a far better way of appealing to these areas, otherwise they risk serious losses in both Remainia and Leave Land. This means grappling with the fact that many voters in these seats are ‘cross-pressured’. In their hearts, they agree with the Tories on the cultural issues of Brexit and immigration, and also crime. But in their heads, they agree with Corbyn’s economic radicalism and his promise to do more to redistribute an economy which many feel is rigged against them. Talking only about Brexit is not enough; voters also want to know how this moment will be used to make our society fairer.
Theresa May is familiar with this problem. Many voters liked her on culture but were deeply sceptical when it came to economics. So, while the Conservative vote increased a bit, so too did Labour’s, which was a disappointment to May and her advisors.
So, in short, the next Tory leader needs to go much further on economics than they are probably prepared to. In a world where the vast majority of Brexit Party voters earn less than £40,000 per year, tax cuts for people on £50-80k are not going to cut it.
Farage may have set out his stall, but there has been remarkably little during the Conservative leadership campaign to suggest that either candidate, or the Tory Party as a whole, truly grasps what is needed to appeal to Brexit Party Britain – that place where voters share a profound sense of economic insecurity and pessimism. These voters are looking for a far more radical domestic policy agenda and one that is chiefly focused on economic fairness, not on how to build a Singapore-on-Thames.
With an election looming, the Tories need to come up with a counter offer for Brexit Britain and one that goes further than ‘we will deliver Brexit’. And do it fast. If they fail to do so, then even a mediocre Brexit Party vote could cause major problems for incumbent Conservative MPs who are sitting on small majorities – like Johnny Mercer in Plymouth Moor View, Lucy Allan in Telford, Amber Rudd in Hastings and Rye or Simon Clarke in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland.
Other Tory seats that were gained in 2017, have wafer-thin majorities and are favourable to the Brexit Party like Thurrock, Southport, Aberconwy and Southampton Itchen could fall in the same way. The Tories will need to find a new way of appealing to these areas, not just by delivering Brexit but also going further on the economic axis.
Meanwhile, unless Labour retains its relationship with its traditional working-class voters then it could find that its majorities in pro-Leave seats are further whittled down as Opposition voters coalesce around the Brexit Party.
In short, as British politics continues to fragment, the future of the main parties depends on how they seek to renew their relationship with the Britain that they left behind.