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.