by Peter Franklin
Monday, 8
March 2021

Memo to populists: it’s security, not liberty, stupid

Laurence Fox's launch is all about freedom — but is that what drives populist voters?
by Peter Franklin
The electoral system is one obstacle — but the most crucial problem is what they stand for. Credit: The Reclaim Party

A busy weekend for British populism. The big news was that Nigel Farage is quitting politics — for good this time. We also learned that Laurence Fox is running for London mayor.

The Farage headlines were somewhat over done. Read the small print and you see that all he’s quitting is party politics: “I’ve knocked on my last door. I’m going to step down as the leader of Reform UK.”

You can’t blame him. He may well be the most influential politician of his generation, but he’s stood for Parliament seven times and lost seven times. The Brexit Party/Reform UK has never won a Westminster seat. Defecting Tory MPs handed UKIP two Westminster seats, but those successes were short-lived.

It seems that Brexit Britain has no room for populist parties. Apart from the odd council ward, their last remaining refuge is the Welsh Senedd where the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party is likely to win seats in the forthcoming elections.

So why can’t the populists break out of their single issue niches? Obviously the electoral system presents an obstacle, but beyond that the basic problem is what they stand for. It’s illustrated by the Laurence Fox campaign video. Lozza strides through an empty London bar lamenting lockdown. He wants to “reclaim your freedom”, he says.

But the issue he comes up against is that the ‘freedom’ that Britons are most interested in right now is freedom from Covid-19 — and they’re willing to make sacrifices. Popular support for lockdown measure is strong and consistent — and, if anything, the public are more authoritarian in their attitudes than the Government is.

King’s College London research into underlying voter values shows that the people most in favour of curtailing civil liberties during the lockdown are most strongly orientated to the ‘security’ value. Crucially, Leave voters were also most strongly orientated in this direction (in contrast to Remain voters for whom ‘universalism’ is the key value).

In attempting to rally the Leave electorate around a new issue, it seems the populist parties might have chosen the wrong one. Indeed, the leadership of these parties have once again revealed that their own primary values do not align with those of their target voters. It’s not that this slice of electorate is anti-freedom, it’s just what it wants more of most is security, not liberty.

The libertarian orientation of Reform UK and the Reclaim Party therefore just doesn’t work — something that Farage must have realised by now. Reform UK, now led by Richard Tice, appears to be doubling-down on the freedom rhetoric. Rather than follow suit, Reclaim should take the opportunity to differentiate itself.

There’s a lesson to learn from the official Leave campaign. At the time, the slogan “take back control” was praised for its impactful simplicity. However, it’s true brilliance lies in the fact that it can be interpreted in two different ways: as an appeal to the libertarian values of the Leave ‘insiders’, but also as a pathway to greater security for those voters who proved most crucial to the Leave victory.

In getting Brexit done, Boris Johnson has had to decide whether to emphasise a ‘liberty Brexit’ or a ‘security Brexit’. So far, and perhaps because the pandemic gave him no choice, he has prioritised security.

If he deviates from that path, then the populists will have a chance again.

Join the discussion

  • Can we really be said to be supporting lockdowns as an exercise of our free will when fear of this virus has been exacerbated as a deliberate act of policy (as the SAGE minutes show)? Isn’t that a bit like saying an abuse victim ‘consents’ to being with their partner?

    The outcome for anyone standing on a freedom ticket will sadly be the same either way – it won’t bring electoral success.

    I would agree with another comment here though – some messages are just too important to leave unsaid, regardless of the futility of saying them (and haven’t we all felt that over the past twelve months).

  • Please explain how lockdowns provide ‘freedom from Covid-19’. Is this truly still the position of most people in the UK?

  • The traditional British Law only outlaws specific acts. You’re confusing the EU-Napoleanic Law which makes everything not specifically legal illegal.

  • To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

    It's simple, quick and free.

    Sign me up