2024-advantage Reform UK and Farage?

Photo: Twitter/Keir Starmer

Trevor Fisher speculates on the dangers of further growth of the populist right and the threat it poses to Starmer’s Labour.

At the end of 2023 the result of the General Election due in 2024 appeared to be a done deal from the predictions in most of the media – Labour has a long established Opinion Poll lead and parallels with the Blair victory in 1997 seem valid. Certainly LOTO (Leader of the Opposition) office seems convinced the campaign will be run on a template which is top down and money oriented. Private Eye revealed that at the 2023 Party conference the percentage of Business attenders reached 28% but those from trade unions a mere 3%. (issue 1609)

This approach is justified by the need to win the election. Both the rapprochement with Tony Blair himself and the rejection of anything resembling the soft left manifesto Starmer won the leadership election on indicates that the strategy, endorsed by large parts of the media bubble, seems to have convinced the suits that 2024 will be a re-run of 1997. A closer look at the data and political reality tells a different story.

The Story Opinion Polls Tell (Nowcast Poll)

Firstly, the traditional reliance on opinion polls, backed up by by-election victories, are suspect both because Kinnock and Miliband relied on them, and failed to repeat the poll figures in the ballot boxes. The reliance on by election results and more recent factors have, as commentators in Chartist and elsewhere have indicated failed to note the problems with turnout. . Undeniably, poll results are superficially impressive. The last poll for 2023 that I have, from a betting website (bookies look at data with an unbiased gaze) show the following indicators from voters who answer the time honoured question “if there was an election today how would you vote?” thus:

PartyPercentage VoteMPsChange on 2019
Lib Dem11.243+35
Reform UK9.00

The pollster added the following cautionary note:

“The Nowcast indicates how a General Election would look if an election were held today, not in a few months or a year’s time. It is not a prediction, but a snapshot of public opinion at the time of polling”.

Rarely said, and even more rarely – and not even by Nowcast – is the fact that turn out data is not given, so it is not clear how many voters said they would not vote or have not yet decided.

The emergence of Reform UK and the rise of apathy

Tory hopes of getting back to winning ways rest on their ability to put money into pockets in a give away budget and run an expensive election campaign, as they are still raising more money than Labour. However, the table shows that Reform UK is starting to show a growing support base despite having no MPs forecast. What the MP with the smallest majority in the UK (at 53) said is relevant.

James Daly in Bury North, told the i paper he did not fear Tory switchers to Labour, as Reform UK (now rebadged under its old name of the Brexit Party), was likely to take more Tory votes in a seat like his. This was backed up by a December report from Redfield and Wilton suggesting that 13% of Tory voters in 2019 might switch to Labour – but 15% might switch to Reform UK. The growth in Reform UK mirrors UKIP and may have the same effect – if so, Ed Miliband’s belief that UKIP would help Labour by splitting the Tory vote has to be put under the microscope. The disaster of the 2015 election, where Labour lost Scotland to the SNP and saw many Labour voters go to UKIP can be repeated if Labour thinks voters automatically switch to a safety first party.

The re-emergence of Blair as an influence on LOTO highlight the need to address the rise of apathy – there was only one long lasting effect of the Blair victory on voting behaviour. Before New Labour, at every election from 1945 to 1997 inclusive, turnout had been over 60%. From 2001 to 2019 turnout at every election has been below 60% and the Red Wall phenomenon, which did not lose Labour the 2019 election, as the decline was long term,  sees some commentators arguing turnout may drop in 2024, in part as the two main leaders have majored in a lack of inspirational qualities, making the return of the Blair strategy of neglecting the Labour supporter and focusing on the Tory voter even less sensible. Richard Vaughan in the i paper quoted Ed Dorrell at Public First suggest the “lack of a pull factor is one of the biggest obstacles to Sir Keir securing a large majority”. Attlee was boring as well. But he had popular support.

The Party needs to keep its active base well on side. Instead the selection processes have been grossly inadequate, activist participation has been neglected and in the rush to fill the remaining non priority seats local activists have been abandoned careless of the need to win grassroots support. Labour risks, like the Tory Party, being wrecked by a populist upsurge of popular rejection so must stop thinking all value lies at the top.

Labour has learnt no lessons from its failure in the 2016 referendum crucially that Nigel Farage is a very effective politician. Farage may join the Tories or stay with Reform UK. Whatever he does, 2024 is likely to see him becoming far more effective than the grey politicians in the three ‘major’ parties.

The Farage Factor

Farage is more than a headline grabber, he is justifying his role in the rise of Euro Populism. He told the Telegraph he was a forerunner of the upsurge, and looks forward to the Euro elections in May which should see the rise in representation of populist parties go from 25% to 33% or more. He said “I could have led a big group”. He may still do so – at Westminster, though not unless he can take the Brexit vote away from the Tories. Given this prospect, how will Starmer play it? Not, I hope, as Miliband played the 2015 election, ignoring both UKIP and the SNP thinking they posed no threat. If Labour does not match the rise of populism with a radical popular agenda of its own, Farage – but not the grey Sunak – will barnstorm his way to success. Safety First is not an election winning slogan.

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