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Is Reform UK a paper tiger?

Can Richard Tice's Reform make inroads at the next election? Credit: Getty

April 23, 2024 - 7:00am

As the Tory Party has started to slide even further downwards, some are talking with bated breath about the prospect of a crossover – hitting parity with, or even falling below, Reform UK. Taking the former at its lowest vote share and the latter at its highest, the gap is now perhaps just four or five points. Should that happen, it could point to one of the biggest ever shifts in British political history, and an existential crisis for the Conservatives. Yet there are grounds to be sceptical.

On the face of it, Reform is on an impressive trajectory. Current polls have the party sitting at around 14%. This would be higher than Ukip polled at its 2015 peak. Outside of the polls, however, there is much to suggest these numbers are flimsy. For one, the Reform vote has failed to materialise in by-elections. Even as the Tories have sunk, Reform candidates have been also-rans, not picking up disaffected Conservatives in the way they’d hope.

Wellingborough is the only seat in which Reform has come close, scoring 13%, but most expected the party to do much better there than its national average. In Mid Bedfordshire, Reform didn’t even beat the local independent candidate. It seems there is a real schism between what people are telling pollsters and what’s happening at the ballot box.

The local elections give us an indication of why. While Ukip built its way from the ground up, grinding away at council elections, Reform has pretty much ignored this aspect of politics. In 2015, Ukip won over 200 council seats and even took control of the Thanet local authority. The year before, when turnout wasn’t muddied by the general election on the same day, the party claimed 17% of the vote. Reform is nowhere near this — in next month’s local elections, it is standing just 300 candidates and so far has picked up just 10 defecting councillors.

While Reform has been adept at garnering headlines, it has failed to build out a party infrastructure. For all its pretensions to speak for “the real world”, it mostly exists as a creature of the Westminster bubble. The leadership makes announcements and talks to journalists, as well as trying to pull Tory MPs into defecting, but little happens out in the country. There’s no formal membership structures and few places have a local association.

This reduces its potential strength when the general election comes. On everything from getting nomination papers in to persuading voters to turn out, Reform is pretty untested, meaning there’s a good chance it will underperform at the next election.

As the big contest grows near, Reform could find its numbers squeezed. In the absence of a good ground campaign, it faces multiple risks. Worried Tory MPs could peel off waverers by love-bombing, campaigning hard and visibly on local issues. Ambitious Labour candidates might try the same approach. In addition, Reform relies on a core of dissatisfied, anti-politics voters, who just might not bother unless canvassers reach them.

Reform will probably falter in the general election. The party will cost the Tories seats, for sure, but will be a long way off winning any of its own. A poorer showing might help the Conservatives but would leave Reform in an awkward position — too unpopular to ever really challenge the existing parties, and scrabbling around for direction, and attention, in a Labour-dominated era. The Conservatives might be bruised by this, but not broken, and would be more in need of winning voters back from Labour than from the Right.

For all the excitement about potential crossover points, there’s still little evidence Reform votes really stack up. For all its media ubiquity, the party shows no aptitude for the real business of detailed manifestos or ground campaigns. Looking beyond the polls, its position looks weak and liable for squeezing. Coming towards the general election, the Reform threat could well prove to be a phantom.


John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.

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Ben H
Ben H
1 month ago

Good luck from Virginia!

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 month ago

“It seems there is a real schism between what people are telling pollsters and what’s happening at the ballot box.”
This can be observed in Austria with the FPÖ aswell. In the polls, it comes up as the leading party time and again at about 30%: more than both the mainstream parties (SPÖ, ÖVP). But it’s not getting anywhere near that level in actual votes.
My theory is that voters are so frustrated by both of the mainstream parties (not to mention the other, more fringe outfits like the NEOs) that they say they’ll vote for the FPÖ but only as a kind of scare tactic to try and shock the traditional parties into taking voter concerns seriously (notably: migration).
When people actually get to the voting booth, they seem unable to bring themselves to put their crosses next to the name of an FPÖ politician. We’ll see how it pans out in the national elections later this year. Whether voters really do get so frustrated that they throw their inhibitions about the FPÖ to the wind remains to be seen. But even then, it will be a protest vote rather than a sign of belief that the FPÖ will govern well or effectively.
The same goes for Reform – I think their voters are using them as a weapon to whack the Tories with, hoping that it will galvanise them into reforming (no pun intended).

Robert Routledge
Robert Routledge
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I live in a true blue area but a vote for Reform could let in the Lib. Dems thus assuring a Starmer government so wouldn’t risk Reform however much I dislike the current government

Alex Wright
Alex Wright
1 month ago

You wouldn’t vote for a party because it might allow another party to unseat the party you don’t like. So you’ll just continue to vote for a party you don’t like. We really do get the politicians we deserve don’t we.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Wright

It’s intelligent tactical voting. Combined with fibbing to pollsters it might just push the Conservatives back to being Conservative

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

I’m afraid that ship sailed a while ago.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
1 month ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

As an old salesman friend of mine used to say, “Santiago, you can’t make chicken salad with chicken shit.”

Robert Routledge
Robert Routledge
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Wright

You can only vote for what is available unfortunately and to vote for Reform would only be a gesture however desirable

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Nowadays most people in Britain work in small businesses, their own or someone else’s, yet this sector, which essentially drives the economy by paying the taxes that the big corporations avoid and which provides the glue that holds the country together, have no real representation in a parliament dominated by the state class vested interests of the left and the corporate parasites of the right. Reform doesn’t offer a solution to this.
However, voting for them may just lead to the political upheaval that the country desperately needs. Otherwise, whoever wins, it will be business as usual in a system that taxes productive activity in order to reward the rent-seeking of the establishment class.

Rob N
Rob N
1 month ago

I would love Reform to be a serious party with proper policies etc but it is an uncommitted joke (eg zero net migration rather than zero/minimal immigration) and if I vote for them it will only be as a way to try to destroy the Tories so that they must reform and return to right wing policies.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

In many ways it doesn’t matter if Reform win few or no seats in the next General Election.
Just as UKIP didn’t make any inroads to the UK two party system it never-the-less had a big impact on politics and resulted in the Brexit Referendum. The success in the EU elections didn’t hurt either.
So if pressure from Reform concentrates a few minds about government indolence over several matters it will have achieved something.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago

I am surprised that so many otherwise sensible commentators have been swept up in this talk of Reform replacing the Tories. I suspect it is just despair at the opportunity the Conservatives have squandered that is making them grasp at straws. (I share the sense of despair by the way).
All UKIP, the Brexit Party or Reform can do is push the Tories to adopt a particular policy by threatening their majorities in closely fought constituencies. UKIP got the referendum. BP got the clean exit.
It isn’t yet clear to me what Reform are going for. Will it be a commitment to leave the ECHR? It might be if Strasbourg stymies the Rwanda flights.
Will it be a referendum on legal migration numbers? It seems a weird thing to campaign for as the government now has all the tools to control legal migration since we left the EU, but I have repeatedly heard it said.
They need to work out what their demand is pretty quickly.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

It’s pretty early days. Remember it took nearly 20 for the labour party to replace the liberals, and it eventually only happened because of democratic reform and a factionalised liberal party that lacked a coherent ideology.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
1 month ago

Not when your political class show platykurtic distribution tendencies and the population a normal distribution trend. We do not have a right of centre party and nature abhors a cacuum. I judge Reform’s take of the share to be 12% no more. Any upside reflects frustration and anger when politicians fail to deliver, but that won’t build the base. Of course with an ageing population what “right” means is itself somewhat confused as the changing of the political order is less sharply felt and the right comprises everything from hardline Thatcherites to 3rd way Cemeroons. .

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
1 month ago

Let’s hope so.

Justin S
Justin S
1 month ago

You miss the point Mr Oxley.
Few who intend to vote for Reform at the next GE are so naive to believe it will form the next Government.

No. The value in voting for Reform – for those of us who once were loyal Tory Party members and Tory voters for decades and who now feel utterly betrayed and ‘shafted’ by the Tory Party – is to see the current Tory Parliamentary Party annihilated and expunged from their seats.

The only hope for a future Tory Party that represents the people who vote for it, is to burn it to the ground and purge the current Party in Parliament.

Yes this gifts the next election to Labour. BUT – 14 years of ineptitude and incompetence and the slow descent of the Tories into a Party of social democratic, soft socialist, woke gristle has to be rewarded with the guillotine.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago
Reply to  Justin S

I share your inclination to vote Reform for the reasons you give but (a) my vote is an irrelevance in a Labour constituency and (b) will not the remaining Tory MPs in safe seats be the sort of wet “liberal” MP that has done such damage to the Tory party already who will argue that the Conservatives will only get back in by supporting the sort of left wing mush that the “young” are supposed to favour to be on the “ right side of history”?

Only by clearing out the thicket of woke legislation and woke placemen/place persons in the civil service, quangos and NGOs is a conservative vision going to favourably transform the country. Will there be a majority of Conservative MPs signed up to such a program. Somehow I doubt it. The principal defining characteristic of MPs of all parties is conformist incompetence.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago
Reply to  Justin S

Politicians and journalists persistently underestimate the ability of the average voter to understand long term political strategy and vote accordingly. The voters only have one way to make their feelings known, and through the ballot box, messages are sent. A blowout loss is a clear message that change is needed, as nobody likes losing, especially losing historically badly. The Tories must know it’s coming by now and are probably just wondering how bad it will be. It is likely to be bad enough for them to conclude change is needed. Whether they make the right changes, that’s another story.

Stuart Sutherland
Stuart Sutherland
1 month ago

I saw an old election poster that read ” Vote for the party or candidate that will do the least damage to you, your family, your neighbours, your community and your country”. That’s how I’ll be deciding at the next election.!

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago

That’s a tough decision!: red neo-liberal globalist technocrat or pink neo-liberal globalist technocrat?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 month ago

We should not overlook that many voters vote not for who they like, but against who they don’t like. When it comes to a general election, they may not like the Tories, but many will like Labour even less, so they won’t vote to let Labour in by supporting even the silly party, LibDems, or stupid party, Reform.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

It’s a paper Tiger because it remains focused, as does most of the Right, on the wrong things. Boats and Culture wars are second-tier issues at best. It’s cost of living, the sense growing inequality/unfairness and the dreadful state of public services that people are most exercised about. There is also an instinctive reflex they’ve been lied to/hoodwinked too long the last 14yrs.
Reform making some soundings that play well with a small base – including of course a chunk of the Unherd subscription – but largely silent on the things that really matter.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
1 month ago

Ever since Lee Anderson defected, all I’ve largely seen from Reform is Richard Tice purge any candidates who have said anything more right -wing than Tice or Anderson are. Every time Communists like Hope Not Hate release a smear job on a candidate, Tice moans about HNH but purges the candidate anyway. Leaves the impression that Tice is just interested in being Tory Boys 2.0 and is a totally unserious operation.

James Kirk
James Kirk
1 month ago

Have you seen what some have gone on twitter with? Scots are a t**d that won’t flush away? Black criminals should be deported? Idiots. The fact they passed muster in the first place questions Tice’s judgement.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
1 month ago
Reply to  James Kirk

Little of it seemed worse than what Anderson said about Sadiq Khan to be honest. The comments Beau Dade made about Scots were tongue in cheek anyway. Tice’s poor judgement is shown by saying how high when Hope not Hate tell him to jump. If he had good instincts he’d tell HNH to pound sand and call them out as the degenerate communists they are.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
1 month ago

I believe the author misses the point. The strategy of Reform UK is pretty clear to anyone who listens to Tice:

1- Bleed votes from the tories so that they are destroyed at the next GE
2- Allow labour free reign to completely wreck the country
3- Use the next 5 years to build the requisite infrastructure
4- Become the primary contender in the 2029 GE

Given the above Reform UK is not focussed on winning local government seats or even win MP’s and general elections. Of course that is what they have to say on the tin, because no party can be credible if it doesn’t ostensibly appear to seek power. So to Point 1. the current purpose is to bleed votes from the conservatives in the next GE to such an extent that that party collapses, and then fragments, and then potentially disappears. Hence the messaging at national media level and raising awareness of the alternative.

Point 2. Labour can be relied upon to deliver on this and the worse the tory rout and collapse the better for Reform. There is no realistic possibility that labour will do a good job in office because there is no money left, which means they will be on the back foot from the outset. Furthermore, the calibre of the shadow front bench is so low one would be pushed to run a banana republic with the available talent let alone a first world country.

Point 3. Reform is only 3-4 years old. It takes time, resources and lots of money to build a political party that can function effectively at both national and local level. Currently Reform is a company (with Farage as largest shareholder) and not a party. Moreover Farage is not actively involved. Both these things will have to change in order to secure the funding and sponsors and build the necessary infrastructure. 5 years should be enough time, albeit I admit it is pretty tight. During this phase it will also be vital to ensure that a splintered tory party does not coalesce into anything meaningful.

Point 4. Barring total economic collapse or a general breakdown in law and order under labour (it’s on the spectrum of possibilities but the probability is quite low) then they will cling on to the bitter end and hopefully manage to alienate so many voters that Reform will be able to muster the 25%-30% vote share necessary to break through under the UKs FPTP system. This is still a pretty tall ask in that they would have to double their current vote share, but it’s not impossible.

So in conclusion I don’t believe that Reform will falter after the next GM, that will merely be the first step in a long road. The issues for which they stand will not be addressed by labour – if anything the passage of time will make them even more relevant and pressing. Time will tell.

James Kirk
James Kirk
1 month ago

Tice is driving with the handbrake on. They turn their back on offered local support if it’s not from the wine bar Waitrose, Range Rover set. Tice wants Hyacinth Bucket, not her brother with the car on bricks in the front garden. I’m not surprised Lee Anderson looks so unhappy on their outings. Alicia Kearns, my MP, is very unpopular but Reform have put up Rodney Hacking-Jacket, young farmer, against her on a home grown deli counter ticket. I despair.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
1 month ago
Reply to  James Kirk

You just get the sense of totally complacent and comfortable bourgeois about Tice. Might have worked 30 years ago but totally not up to the task now.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
1 month ago
Reply to  James Kirk

Warmed-over Thatcherites. About as appealing as the New Romantics.
The author of this piece should have included Mr Galloway in his assessment. The so-called mainstream parties might be squeezed from both sides in the General Election.
The author also fails to note the strange saving of the Tory Party by Mr Farage in 2019. And, in effect, the saving of the Labour Party from a term of a Corbyn government, one which might have destroyed Labour.
All the problems that have assailed the country in the last 14 years, and have proved insoluble, will land in Starmer’s lap. If those problems cause the Tory Party to collapse entirely, they will do the same to the Labour Party after 14 years.

Louise Henson
Louise Henson
1 month ago

I think the biggest threat to Reform doing well is the apathy party. When people tell pollsters that they will vote for Reform they probably mean ‘If I vote at all’. And often they don’t.

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
1 month ago

Candidates need to be highly skilled in playing politics & have a thick skin, if they hope to enter parliament. Hence the likes of Clare O’Neil (Australia’s spectacularly incompetent Minister for Cyber Security & Home Affairs – no less) keep getting re-elected.

The devil you know?

There are good reasons why in post-communist Central & Eastern Europe “formerly monolithic communist parties” retained power long after the Iron Curtain fell.

https://escholarship.org/content/qt3n25s046/qt3n25s046_noSplash_367d54c229171b7e342e73221b61d904.pdf

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
1 month ago

Utter time-wasters. Much like the Tudor’s opposition to the Holy Roman Empire, the only issue that can really engage the British is moving out of the orbit of Brussels and Frankfurt.
If there was a sea change in state attitudes towards mass, post-colonial immigration then that would capture the imagination of the people too. But that ain’t ever gonna happen in a modern western European liberal democracy.
In short, only a Farage leadership would be culturally significant. The political significance of a Reform UK vote is to hand Labour a super-majority propped up by the Liberals and Scottish Nationals in ensuring the hegemony of the authoritarian Left, the end of free speech and a clear road towards single monetary union in the euro.

Nicholas iall
Nicholas iall
1 month ago

I have cancelled my membership with the conservative Party and joined the Reform Party because I like their policies and I believe in lower taxes, smaller state , less business regulation and Merit and competence to be important when hiring. The conservative Party is basically a neo liberal globalist party with no discerning values, I think a lot of conservative MP’s are basically in the wrong party both left and right wing and after this election there will be a lot of homeless conservatives.

Reform are polling at the same level as the lib dems have for 40 years but will not be given the same deference. I’m resigned to having a Labour government. But Labour are basically answering to the same global organisations as the Tories.

Reform will soon be the best only option for people right of centre.