The Brexit Party shows that Nigel Farage has learned from his mistakes

I dislike the journalistic fashion of reporting and commenting on news before it has happened, which affects even such high-minded journals as The Economist. They have an annoying habit of reporting and analysing both elections and economic statistics before the actual results or figures are known. So I won’t comment on how most of the political parties are doing in this Thursday’s elections to the European Parliament. But enough of The Brexit Party (TBP) is known to give observers of the British political scene pause.

In the TV film Brexit: the Uncivil War, Nigel Farage and his principal backer, Arron Banks, are painted as buffoons. This is compared to the sharp and focused official Leave campaign managed by the maverick Dominic Cummings, established by, among others, Ukip’s ex-Tory MP Douglas Carswell. Mssrs Farage and Banks and their Leave.eu campaign were nevertheless useful to the Leave campaign, by making less respectable arguments about immigration and culture, while the official leavers concentrated on the more politically correct arguments about sovereignty and money. The film is a caricature, of course. The official Leavers were happy to talk about Turkey joining the EU, while Leave.eu did some pretty sharp stuff with data and social media too.

But one hope for Remainers angling for a further referendum was that the Leave side would not be so sharply organised the second time around. TBP should disabuse them of that notion. This party has risen from nowhere to consistently leading the polling for the European elections, and polling nearly 20% for Westminster elections too. This is in stark contrast to the other new party that had hoped to use these elections as a launchpad: The Independent Group, now calling themselves Change UK, who have crashed.

What is clear is that Mr Farage is no buffoon, and that he has learned from the failure of his previous vehicle, Ukip, and the success of Mr Cummings’s Leave campaign. Ukip became a rambling and chaotic political party of assorted eccentrics, which became unmanageable because it followed the conventional wisdom that political parties had to be “democratic” in order to maintain the participation of their memberships. By “democratic” I mean using democratic forms to give important rights to members. Control by a self-selected minority is in no sense democratic, and I hate the word being used in this context – though Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have all picked up this irritating habit. We are about to see just how democratic this idea really is when 100,000 Tory members will be make the final choice as to who will replace Theresa May as Prime Minister.

TBP makes no pretence at this sort of “democracy”. So far as I can see there is no membership. The public can sign up as registered “supporters”, but they do not acquire any rights by doing so. Meanwhile the party’s organisation is tightly controlled by an efficient cadre. In European elections all political parties are entitled to one piece of freely distributed literature, which politicos call “freepost” (the production and printing still has to be paid for by the parties). TBP’s freepost was individually addressed and arrived before anybody else’s. It was also one of the clearest and best produced. This bespeaks organisation and funding that were in place before we actually knew these elections were going to take place. The next best organised, incidentally, were the Lib Dems, also individually addressed (though only sent to minority of voters) which arrived not long after TBP’s, and which also had clear messaging. Change UK’s, by contrast, was late, unaddressed, and devoid of content (Labour’s was almost as bad – and the Tories have not produced a freepost at all).

But TBP’s sharpness goes well beyond organising this literature. It has organised street stalls and well-attended public meetings, and mobilised celebrity (sort-of) endorsements. Its message has crushed rivals on the hard-Leave side, and in particular Ukip, which many voters didn’t know Mr Farage had left. It destroyed the Conservatives before they could even mobilise. They have been getting quite decent media coverage (including from the BBC, stretching their mandate for fair coverage, which usually biases towards established parties) – but this is a sign of a well-organised social media campaign. Ironically social media seems to work even better politically amongst technically less agile oldsters than it does with younger voters. The former are still using Facebook and Twitter.

Pretty much everything about TBP looks sharp. It has a nicely designed logo (don’t ask Change UK about theirs…), and very clear messaging. They have now set most Leave supporters on the route to saying that only a no-deal Brexit (a “WTO Brexit of “managed no-deal” as they call it) can honour the result of the 2016 referendum. The message underlying this is that politicians can’t be trusted and the party wants to “Change Britain for Good” (a slogan that I think the Lib Dems have tried before, much less successfully). In the last few days doubts have been raised about the way it obtains online donations – but I would be surprised if this didn’t check out. All parties do this, though TBP sails much closer to the edge than we do at the Lib Dems – the risk is around how the party ensures that a series of smaller donations don’t add up to something that should be reported.

So if there is a new referendum, Remainers should know that they will be up against formidable opposition – when their own organisation is all too beset by inter-party rivalries between Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Change UK.

What TBP’s weaknesses? There are two. First is that it risks being too old, white and angry. Cummings’s Leave campaign made real efforts to cultivate a middle ground of more reasonable supporters, who did not want to reject a different sort of association with the EU, and who were a lot less angry about “the elite” because they were on the fringes of it themselves. They also wanted to distance themselves from the unspoken misogyny and racism that lurks behind the more extreme forms Brexit support (Mr Farage both plays on this for all he is worth, and is sensitive to its dangers). So TBP could race up to 25% support (and higher in the Euro elections) and smash into a roadblock. This level of support makes life very hard for established political parties but may well be insufficient to make headway in Westminster elections. The Lib Dems suffered from this in the 2000s.

The second weakness is organisation. The flipside to the slick, highly centralised organisation it now has, is that it is weak on the more distributed and devolved organisation needed to succeed locally. It probably doesn’t care about council elections, but it surely does about Westminster ones. Most successful constituency campaigning is of this localised sort – unless you can get popularity into the 30s and 40s nationally (as the SNP succeeded in doing in Scotland).

Both of these weaknesses should matter less in a referendum. Other organisations (such as the Conservatives and Labour Brexiteers) can pick up the middle ground, and local organisation doesn’t count for that much. So what should Remainers do? A topic for a future post.

The European elections are a victory for proportional representation

They look like a colossal waste of effort. Elections to the European Parliament take place every five years, and turnout in Britain, as in much of the rest of Europe, is dismal. Few understand what the European Parliament is for. But last night’s debate between Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Ukip’s Nigel Farage shows that things are going in an interesting direction. These elections are contributing more and more to the wider process of politics in this country.

The most important thing about theses elections is that they are held using proportional representation (PR). Parties in practice need to get over 10% of the vote in a particular region to get represented – but that still gives parties with a broad but thinly spread appeal a much better chance than parliamentary and even local council elections. The vote share won by the two parties that dominate conventional elections, the Conservatives and Labour, is dismal. This is adding a new dimension to the political debate because it offers voters a greater choice.

The conventional way of politics in the UK is to tell the voters that the real choice is between just two parties. Which two varies depending on where the election is being held, but mostly it is between Labour and the Conservatives (though Scotland is a big outlier here). This serves to close down political debate to a few carefully chosen swing issues that appeal to marginal voters in marginal constituencies. Minority views are dismissed as being irrelevant. But this line of campaigning does not work with PR. And the European elections are the only ones held under PR for most English electors (Scottish, Welsh, Northern Ireland and London Parliament/Assembly elections are held under PR).

The most obvious beneficiaries of this have been to the Lib Dems, the Greens, and, above all, Ukip. Ukip is a right wing insurgent party that represent political views that are as far away from mine as you can get while still being a respectable political party (unlike the openly racist BNP, for example). But it speaks for an important minority of mainly English voters who feel oppressed by the current political system, and ignored by the main parties. The EU is an important focus of that discontent, as is what is seen as excessive immigration. As an aside it often draws its strongest support from areas that are relatively unaffected by immigration – but that does not stop it being a popular scapegoat. The issues are linked: free movement of people is a vital plank of the EU project.

The Conservative and Labour parties would rather these issues were suppressed. They represent inconvenient divisions within their own ranks and put their internal cohesion under stress. And that led to last night’s debate. Ukip and the Lib Dems take clear sides, and are quite happy to slug it out in public. And the public gets to hear a proper debate. That is a very important part of the democratic process. Floating voters may not have learnt much from the verbal slugging match, which I judged to be a score draw (with plenty to please both sides), but it at least would have drawn them into the issues.

Where is this heading? In the great scheme of things I don’t think the direct European Parliament elections are a great success in closing Europe’s democratic deficit. I think its original configuration as a forum for delegations from national parliaments was a better one. But for as long as it is the only national election held under PR, it is serving a useful purpose. The right answer is to use PR for national parliamentary elections, but alas that aim remains very distant. PR for local elections may be a more realistic intermediate step.

Meanwhile it will be very interesting to see if the interest stirred by these debates will affect turnout at the elections. But even if they do not (I will only believe it when I see it) they are doing something to close Britain’s democratic deficit.

Will the Dark Forces save the Tories and crush Ukip?

My advice to Ukip is to savour this moment. After being repeatedly being dismissed and written off, their performance in last week’s local elections was the story of the day. They took over a quarter of the vote where they had candidates, and that was in many more seats than before. They won well over 100 council seats. The commentariat are reeling, and were talking about little else over the weekend. As the dust settles somewhat, what are we to make of it?

The obvious comparison is with the Lib Dems and their predecessor parties in their two separate golden runs, in the 1980s with the rise of the SDP, and in the 1990s after the merged parties recovered from their near death experience. Those were golden moments for their supporters. But by and large they presaged disappointment in the subsequent general elections (though not in 1997). Many predict the same fate for Ukip. But their influence on British politics could be profound.

They are, of course, a very different party from the Lib Dems and their predecessors. The latter always had one foot in the political establishment, however much they were outsiders to government itself. Ukip are complete outiders; while they pick up the odd defector from the Conservative party, they are not high flyers – like Roy Jenkins or Shirley Williams were. Ukip are from the political right, and rebel against Politically Correct notions, where the Lib Dems were liberal and, if anything, more PC than the others. But both parties have a set of clear core values which can bind activists to the cause, and both have proved able to pick up a mid-term protest vote. Many voters feel badly served by established politicians, and want to kick them by voting for somebody else, when not much is at stake.

But the Lib Dems have been able to do more than this. They have built a big wedge of MPs and a solid presence in local government, which in turn has led them into coalition government at national level. Could Ukip do the same? We should put aside two common criticisms of the party. First is that it is a “one-trip pony”, obsessed with Britain’s membership of the European Union, an issue which doesn’t really engage the British electorate. The party has successfully branched out into capitalising on anti-immigrant feeling however, giving it a much broader policy appeal. Attacking immigration policies is a wonderful political tactic for opposition parties; the government can’t do that much in practice about it, and to the extent that they can, nasty consequences would flow. And they can add a few other goodies of more local appeal, like attacking wind farms. The second criticism is that they are too dependent on their leader, Nigel Farage, who is a bit of a media star. There may be some truth to this, but we must remember that it is of the nature of minor political parties that the media concentrate on just the personality of the leader. It was a common criticism of the Lib Dems that they were too dependent on whoever their leader was at the time. In fact strength and depth was being built from beneath. This could easily prove to be the case for Ukip too.

Ukip still has two deeper problems. First are its libertarian and socially conservative policy ideas. Worries about immigration and the EU can rally a broad spectrum of voters, but when you start wanting to dismantle the welfare state and cut taxes for the rich, you are backed into a minority. The second is linked, and it is that both their activists and voters are predominantly drawn from older people. Can such people put together hard hitting and disciplined ground war machines in the way the Lib Dems achieved?

And this leads to their main significance to British politics (this applies almost exclusively to England – but the implications apply to the whole country). To the extent that Ukip are able to capitalise on their current success, it will be at the expense of the Conservative Party’s core vote. Ukip are currently drawing voters from all over the place, but when it comes to activists and committed voters, this will surely mainly come from the Tories. Labour politicians fantasize that they will split the Tory vote, and let Labour into a majority, much as the SDP split the Labour vote and kept Mrs Thatcher in power for so long. Some Tories are suggesting some kind of electoral pact with Ukip to stop this from happening.

Behind all this I see the murky presence of what I call the “Dark Forces”. These are a collection of newspaper proprietors (Murdoch, the Barclays, Dacre and Desmond) and big party donors, who have a political agenda not dissimilar from Ukip’s. So far they have found Ukip a useful stick with which to beat the Conservatives. If Ukip do well, then it proves to them that their policies are vote-winners. But the one thing that unites the Dark Forces more than promoting their conservative-libertarian agenda is their hatred of Labour. If Ukip are posing a serious threat to the Tory majority in parliament that they crave, then they will turn on them.

There is plenty of time for this. The more the Conservatives are running scared, the more they will curry favour with the Dark Forces. There are signs of this already, with the Tories softening their stand on press reform. Ukip will be allowed a clear run up to next year’s local and European Parliament elections, where in the latter case they stand a good chance of being the top party. Then the worm will turn. The press will start stoking up fears about Labour’s plans to raise taxes (the truth never did stop the British press – Labour’s softer stand on austerity policies will give this line all the credibility it needs), and building up the Tories as the only people that can stop them. Will it work? It might. The press remains extremely powerful in the British media (the BBC seems completely cowed by them these days); I can’t see any obvious signs that the Labour leadership understands the danger.

The British political soap opera edges towards a gripping climax in 2015.