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Reform, the party of sound and fury

Reform hope to consign the Tories to history at the next election. But the faultlines within Nigel Farage’s rebels are already showing

Caption: Richard Tice, Reform Party leader (left) and Nigel Farage on stage at the Reform Party annual conference in October 2023. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty

For a party that picked up only two councillors in the local elections and is not expected to win a single seat at the general election, Reform gets a lot of attention.

In the latest YouGov/MRP projection, which suggested Labour might win over 400 seats and the Conservatives just 155, Reform were tipped to take zero. They would not even get close to winning any of the 36 seats in which the projection had them finishing second.

That means Tory defector Lee Anderson is likely to lose Ashfield, even though he has produced his own polling numbers seeing him beat Labour in the seat by an unlikely 65% to 16% (“I will take nothing for granted,” wrote Anderson, wisely).

Yet Reform continues to make headlines – including last week’s Daily Mirror exclusive suggesting that Nigel Farage would soon announce he was standing in the general election. But why all the fuss?

Because whether we like it or not, Reform matters – at the next general election, at least. The child of the Brexit Party and grandchild of Ukip has more than doubled its share of the vote in polling during the past year, overtaking the Lib Dems and hitting 15% in a YouGov survey conducted at the end of April, in which the Tories polled only 18%. In the Blackpool South by-election, they were at 16.9% just behind the Tories on 17.5%

The most important thing about Reform’s impact, though, is that most of the people who now back it have recently switched away from the Tories. That is why Conservative support continues to fall and Labour’s lead grows, even as Keir Starmer ticks along steadily in the polls.

So low has Tory support now fallen that seats in places like Great Yarmouth (where Reform polls at 20% and its deputy chairman, former Southampton FC owner Rupert Lowe, is running), Harwich and North Essex, and St Austell and Newquay look set to turn red. If the Tories could win back people lost to Reform, they would almost certainly hold them. 

In many parts of the Red Wall, Labour is doing well enough to win even if blue and light blue votes are added together: in Barnsley North they are on 48%, with Reform on 27% and the Conservatives 13%. These places are beyond hope for Rishi Sunak. 

But just how big will the Tory wipeout be? Will they be reduced to fewer than 165 seats (the 1997 tally) or even 156 (the party’s nadir, in 1908)? For the moment, the answer seems to depend on Reform.

That means the question of what Reform voters think and want is urgent. The academic and Reform cheerleader Matthew Goodwin – he attended Farage’s 60th birthday party in early April – understands that. That’s why he has just put out a paper for the right wing think tank the Legatum Institute, surveying 3,400 Reform supporters.

“While Reform is not a single-issue movement,” wrote Goodwin, “it appeals to disillusioned voters who are overwhelmingly concerned with illegal and legal immigration.” Asked by Legatum what issue mattered most to them in the election, 63% said immigration, and of those more than a third cited stopping the boats.

That rings true, says Keiran Pedley, the director of politics at pollster Ipsos. “Immigration is the issue that most motivates them.” But perhaps just as important is their disillusionment with the Conservatives: “They’re very dissatisfied with the way Rishi Sunak is running the country.”

Goodwin believes that a “bold and radical offer” on immigration – his suggestion is a referendum on cutting net migration to 100,000 a year – could tempt them back to the Tories. Might it work? Pedley is doubtful. “They are very, very negative about the Conservatives at the moment.” What if Reform didn’t stand? “A lot probably wouldn’t vote, such is their disillusionment.” 

Then there’s the question of whether Reform would get an extra boost if Farage returned to lead it. Farage visibly enjoys mulling over that possibility, and it’s possible Reform supporters think he’s still the leader: his name recognition is far higher than that of either Richard Tice or Anderson. But some observers wonder whether Farage might be playing a longer game: despite what the Mirror is claiming, which is that he recognises that being on the frontline of a party which virtually guarantees a massive Tory defeat now will not help his chances of joining or even leading the Tories in the future.

Indeed, Reform is not really a party at all: it’s registered with Companies House, and Farage is one of the four directors. Pedley says Reform might rise another three points if Farage became leader again, though he adds that he also puts some people off. 

What else do we know about Reform supporters? Pedley says they are two-thirds male; 58% of respondents to Goodwin’s survey were men. 

The vast majority voted Leave. Six in 10 are over 55. They are fairly evenly distributed throughout the country, with the exceptions of Scotland and London, and slightly more common in the East Midlands. 

Under first past the post, that looks like a problem for Reform. They picked up a seat on the London Assembly, which still uses a form of proportional representation. But if your real aim is to bleed Tory support and push the party on immigration, applying pressure almost everywhere is something of an advantage.

If immigration isn’t the overwhelming driver of the Reform vote, what is? Alan Wager of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change thinks it can be overstated. 

“A significant, probably slightly larger chunk, of Reform support is people who are disgruntled, anti-politics. They are ‘none of the above’ voters,” he says.

He adds that Goodwin “accidentally came upon a key truth. Only half of Reform supporters would consider voting Conservative again. That suggests the other half are voting Reform for other reasons.”

Ben Walker, the co-founder of Britain Elects, also thinks the issue goes wider than immigration. 

“I suspect what makes these people go Reform instead of Labour or non-voting is where they live. Their homes, their towns have nothing for them now. Their whole bubbles, lives, communities are at rock bottom. Where else would you go but the wild-eyed parties for shaking it up?”

One of the problems with working out what Reform voters really want, points out Paula Surridge of the University of Bristol, is that we don’t know a great deal about them. 

“Reform get a slightly easy ride in terms of being able to paint themselves as a voice of the working class. The evidence for that is quite weak,” she says.

Goodwin’s sample came from right across the social classes, but that only tells us about the kind of people who have the time and inclination to do surveys. Some polling experts have suggested that YouGov polls, in which Reform tends to do well, are highly skewed by people from online forums.

In truth, Reform is struggling to fish from outside the well of ageing and disillusioned Tory voters. It is a party backed by older men, led by men who are approaching retirement. 

Tice is 59, Anderson 57. Farage can now claim his senior bus pass. Reform has few champions among Gen X, let alone millennials. The 45-year-old Laurence Fox has his own populist right party, Reclaim. He couldn’t stand in the London mayoral election because he did not fill in the forms correctly. 

Meanwhile, populist right wing parties in Europe are turning to a younger generation of leaders, including women, to broaden their appeal. Portugal’s André Ventura, France’s Jordan Bardella, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, and Germany’s Alice Weidel are all in their mid-40s or younger.

“They’re finding it very difficult to mobilise among young people,” says Surridge. “What we tend to see [instead] is a high level of disengagement among groups that elsewhere are turning to radical right parties. Among young men without degrees, the most likely thing is for them not to vote.” A poll on immigration, then, might not be the vote winner Legatum think it is: “The British public have had enough of referendums.”

She says the splits in the party go deeper than Reform leaders like to admit. “We treat them as if they’re a bloc that all want the same thing. In fact, you have this tension between traditional and leaning-to-the-right Conservatives, and then these less traditional voters who probably voted Ukip, some of whom came from Labour way back when. 

“But they’re not small state, low tax, and actually Matt’s report shows this” – nearly half think “big business” has made life in Britain worse. A quarter want to increase taxes to pay for the NHS and education.

The real problem for Reform – and it’s a bitter irony for Nigel Farage – is Brexit. He championed a policy that is now deeply unpopular among younger generations.

“If you’re looking at voters under 30, even among the most working-class men, we’re still talking about Brexit being a 75-25 proposition,” says Wager. “It’s striking that in the UK voters are not following a right wing trajectory as they get older, because of the effect of Brexit on dampening support for the right.”

None of this is to take for granted that Britain is now immune from the populist right. If Labour wins and is perceived to be doing too little to improve the country, the danger point might come in a couple of years. Surridge suggested there is now a substantial minority of younger men who could be susceptible to a different kind of populist party. 

But even among Reform voters who care deeply about immigration, there is little sense that the party has the answer. Brexit didn’t fix it, after all. The beleaguered Rwanda scheme is not the deterrent its supporters believed it would be. Would another vote demanding a crackdown on immigration really do the trick?

Forget about the “bold and radical” offers on immigration. So deep is the anger and disillusionment with the Tories that nothing they could promise would win back the public. Still, Sunak is trying it, with the threat to quit the European Court of Human Rights. 

Meanwhile, Reform pulls his strings, happy to jerk the Tories ever further to the right – and waiting for whichever of their MPs survives the general election to carry on the dance.

Ros Taylor hosts the Oh God, What Now?, Jam Tomorrow and Bunker podcasts, and is the author of The Future of Trust (Melville House).

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