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Is Reform UK already sinking?

Richard Tice has been the party's main funder since its inception. Credit: Getty

May 22, 2024 - 7:00am

Earlier this month, Reform UK’s performance in the local elections told us two things. One, they are capable of causing the Conservatives a lot of pain at the general election: where they stood candidates, the Tories suffered heavier defeats even on similar vote shares to other parts of the country.

Second, they are struggling to turn their sometimes-impressive poll share into a sustainable movement. They stood in only 12% of council seats that were up for grabs, and picked up a measly two councillors. For comparison the Greens, with a fraction of the air time, fought 62% and gained 74.

Contrast this with Ukip on the cusp of its own breakthrough: in the local elections of May 2015, it picked up 176 councillors and took control of a council. In the general election, held on the same day, they only held one seat but came second in another hundred; had the EU referendum not taken place, Ukip was well-positioned to become a serious parliamentary force by 2020.

This lack of anything resembling a real movement might not hurt Reform in a general election as much as one might expect; if their performance is down to the national air war, they might feasibly do better when the other parties are spread across hundreds of seats.

But that depends on that national vote share holding up. Yet the latest polling has Richard Tice’s party down four points, below both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

We can’t know for certain why this is, at least not yet. Perhaps some of the stories around the efficacy of the Rwanda scheme (at least in terms of deterrence) have taken some of the sting out of immigration for the voters who care most about it.

On the other hand, perhaps it is simply Reform losing media attention now the excitement of the local elections is out of the way. If so, that suggests a serious strategic problem for Tice and co.

In the short term, it would mean that these numbers aren’t the end of the world. At some point over the summer the press is going to start to shift properly into pre-election mode, and Reform UK’s performance is going to be a story. They will start getting more airtime, and thus more opportunities to punch the Conservatives’ sorest bruises.

After the election though, it’s a different story. In opposition, the Tories will have much more flexibility on policy than in government; a savvy leader will have a relatively free hand to shift position to close down Reform’s best attack lines.

That, combined with the fact that a Labour government would (eventually) become the locus of more voter anger over the course of the parliament, means the Conservatives may be well-positioned to reconsolidate their position on the Right.

Worse, from Tice’s perspective, is that in those circumstances even the Tories will be fighting for coverage; opposition is a brutal business. Unless the election result is sufficiently catastrophic to make their extinction a live possibility, media attention is likely to drift back to the official Opposition. It will have MPs, the weekly circus of PMQs, and few outlets will be regularly seeking out two Right-wing criticisms of whatever Labour is doing that week.

Ukip had a long history, an actual membership, a solid foothold in local government, a seriously strong general election result (for a new party), and a simple clarion call for voters — and it still disappeared beneath the waves.

Reform UK has none of those things. It has had precious little time to build them, and not spent that time especially well. A year from now, it may find that its moment came and went.


Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

HCH_Hill

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Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago

We will know the answer within nine months. I imagine it will very much not be to the Tories liking, no matter how it is “spun”.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

Perhaps Reform are the visible fin of a shark circling SS Current Elite. What must be alarming to those clinging onboard is the realisation that the bulk of the shark, the dangerous bit, is not visible. It may be a minnow, or it might be a great white.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

The Local election results appear insufficient to get Farage to commit to a proper return. Hence the person who could make a difference remains in the grandstand commentating. More lucrative?
Meanwhile what we really need is more media scrutiny of the Reform representatives and their policies beyond immigration slogans. Mainly because it’d be fun watching the paucity of real analysis and policy clarity fall to pieces under sunlight. It’d just further demonstrate the Right more broadly hasn’t squared many of it’s inherent contradictions nor seems intellectually even capable yet of admitting to them.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

There you go again. Anyone who doesn’t share your self-serving ideology must be operating in bad faith, eh?

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
1 month ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I do enjoy the continual capitalisation of the “Right.” It rather fits in with the fact that j watson appears to be the most embedded into left/right 1D axis of thinking individuals I have encountered.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

“Mainly because it’d be fun watching the paucity of real analysis and policy clarity fall to pieces under sunlight.”
This applies at least as much to Labour and the Conservatives of course.
I’m not sure why you want to put so many resources into investigating Reform when they have no chance of forming the next government. Wouldn’t it be more valuable to “stress test” the Labour policies and people to weed out some of their impractical ideas (and people) before they’re inflicted on us ?
I rather think you’re tilting at windmills here, JW !

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

The article, if you hadn’t noticed, was about Reform, and is it sinking already.
Fundamentally the Right is not thrashing out what is the balance between neo-liberalism (which has wrecked so much) and ‘conservatism’. And a key problem in this is the folks who bank-roll Right wing parties want continuation of many neo-liberal elements, but culturally those who might support the Right want much more conservatism. The two things are often in conflict. There is then a need for a much more detailed analysis of what’s going wrong with UK capitalism. A good place the Right should start (in fact no bad idea if Labour starts here too) is why only 2% of UK pension funds invested here, and why we’ve more foreign ownership of UK companies than we had 15yrs ago? Then I’d recommend moving onto a clear analysis of what was wrong in the Water Industry and how privatisation was set up. Find some sensible answers to these sort of things and the Right can recover itself. Currently it wants to just find scapegoats and it’s absolutely pathetic,
Obviously it’s just a matter of time before more Articles about Labour policy and good grief are they getting the mother of all hospital passes. So I’m sure plenty of opportunity for further debate on that to come.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 month ago

If Farage, who has a large following amongst Conservative voters, does not ‘tie his colours to the mast’, and start campaigning for Reform, then yes, Reform will fail in the coming GE2024.
Tice just doesn’t cut it on the front line with the voters, and to destroy the Conservative Party, Reform must win at least 20% of the vote in GE2024

Denis Stone
Denis Stone
1 month ago

Agreed. Richard Tice doesn’t have the necessary leader’s charisma. Too cold, too impersonal even.

Frederick Dixon
Frederick Dixon
1 month ago
Reply to  Denis Stone

I think that’s a little unkind. I prefer the description I heard this morning: “beige”.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

At this point Reform are a protest vote, mainly against mass immigration. This isn’t an issue that counts for very much in council elections.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

They are a protest subculture on the internet. A protest vote IRL, not so much.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago

In the 1992 General Election, Gerry Adams as outgoing MP for West Belfast was challenged by Joe Hendron of the SDLP (who had some chance) and Fred Cobain of the Ulster Unionists (who had no chance). In the Loyalist parts of the constituency the refrain went up: “a vote for Cobain is a vote for Sinn Fein”. Enough held their noses and voted tactically for the SDLP to turf out Adams. His defeat in the Republican heartland helped force a realisation within IRA/Sinn Fein that they were on the road to nowhere electorally and militarily. Hence the Peace Process.

Conservative minded voters in the UK now need to adopt the same philosophy, and hold their noses and vote for the Tories. The alternative is a landslide victory for Labour, which might take two or more parliamentary terms to overturn, even before taking votes at 16, further easing of controls over electoral fraud, and an acceleration of demographic change, into account. A rump of backbench Tory MPs helped force through Brexit, and end lockdowns. If such voices are unseated by scores of extra left wing Labour MPs, there will be disastrous consequences for the country.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

I couldn’t disagree more, a vote for the Tories is a vote for continued high taxes and profligate spending, which has resulted in the Tories racking up a massive debt of some ÂŁ2.6 Trillion and rising.
This at the same time as we have the highest taxes for 70 years with growth in the economy stagnating year after year.
Do not reward such a performance by supporting the Tories in the General Election.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago

Instead reward Labour for baying for more of all of those things for the past 14 years, and for committing even now to an acceleration of the policies which are damaging Britain’s economy and society? Ed Miliband as Energy Secretary, Bridget Phillipson as Education Secretary, Yvette Cooper as Home Secretary? Careful what you wish for.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

If we are to have Socialism it’s probably best done by Socialists. The current Labour party is the nearest there is.

Ben Jones
Ben Jones
1 month ago

Unless the Tories are utterly pulverized at the next election, they will remain the spineless bunch of Lib Dem cosplayers they’ve become. Then, the incoming Labour government will try to impose a raft of genuinely unpopular policies. After that? It’s popcorn time, but something big has to give.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
1 month ago
Reply to  Ben Jones

Who is going to do this pulverising? The number of people who want to conserve traditional virtues is, unfortunately, tiny. If there aren’t enough people to preserve Anglicanism, county cricket or High Street shops there certainly aren’t enough voters to pulverise the Tory party for being too squishy. The Tories are spineless Lib Dem cosplayers because that’s where the votes are.
Most people just want more free stuff, so there are major disagreements over minor changes in tax or defence spending, while more and more money gets spent on the NHS and welfare. Reform are just the bitter, divorced Dads subset of people looking for free stuff, don’t expect any pulverising to come from there.

Ben Jones
Ben Jones
1 month ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

I think you might have misread my comment, or I wasn’t making my point clearly enough. Sorry. I don’t think Reform will pulverize the Tories. I think them robbing Tory votes and letting Labour in will.
I am now jaded enough to think (1) the two main parties are so similar it doesn’t really matter who gets in, but (2) Labour, starved of money, will rely on red-meat culture war policies which will force the British centre-right to become a bit, er… centre right.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  Ben Jones

It will not force the British centre-right to become more centre-right. If centre-right views become literally illegal to express, then the Overton Window just shifts further to the left.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 month ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

Maybe people are more interested in their wage packets remaining reasonably intact, see more houses built and a growing economy generating jobs.
Never underestimate the electorate, they know there is no such thing as free, the ones that that is!

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
1 month ago

Based on the electoral popularity of the pensions triple lock, extra ÂŁ350m a week for the NHS and constant demand to eliminate inheritance tax, I think it impossible to underestimate the electorate. They are a bunch of gouging freeloaders who want as much free stuff as possible, paid for by taxes on other people.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago

I think Reform had better do a deal with the Tories. What issue will they force the Tories to adopt? Perhaps leaving the ECHR? Fracking? A cap on total visas? They could push for ditching the Graduate Visa (but that is probably small beer).

So far they have failed to zero in on an implementable policy to force on the Cons. Perhaps they have bought into this wild talk of replacing the Tories. They need to grow up and get serious about their aims.

Peter Spurrier
Peter Spurrier
1 month ago

According to this website, Reform still seem to be ahead of the Lib Dems and the Greens.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_next_United_Kingdom_general_election

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 month ago

As a resident of the borough that was proudly trending on May 3 as everyone asked, “Where exactly are those two Reform councillors?”, I can confidently say that Reform just doesn’t have enough members/supporters/funds to campaign effectively.

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

Reform’s issue is they didn’t bother putting in the hard graft needed to create a grassroots political movement. There are no local associations, no youth camps, no serious policy publications. Tice has had five years to put the necessary infrastructure in place to seize control of the mainstream political right in England but he was never able to grasp the basic essentials. Without Nigel Farage’s charisma there is little there to work with.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
1 month ago
Reply to  R Wright

a lack of discernible policies other than not being The Tory party has a lot to do with it.
they will pick up the protest vote but it’s not sustainable without a coherent policy agenda

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
1 month ago

I checked the Reform candidate for my constituency. Turns out he has previously ran multiple times unsuccessfully in various council wards as a Lib Dem, as recently as 2022. I supposedamascene conversion is possible, but it raises some suspicions. Admittedly it’s a safe Labour seat so maybe a moot point but I notice the likes of Richard Tice are happy to accept the refuse of other parties but has been purging right-wingers.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
1 month ago

If the Rwanda Scheme was scheming to make it look like there was an intention not to continue with mass immigration, it has failed.
It would have been more successful if the Rwanda Scheme tried to convince people that the UK was Rwanda.