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 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 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.

5 thoughts on “The Brexit Party shows that Nigel Farage has learned from his mistakes”

  1. What should Remainers, and everyone else, do? Many would argue “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”.
    Embrace your right to be blessed by this wonderful Brexit, that mean spirited people, traitors and remoaners are conspiring to deny you. Like the First World War soldiers who went over the top, like the Japanese pilots who gladly committed Hara Kiri, like the American youngsters who trustfully drank the Kool Aid, Britons who have the courage to jump over the cliff will surely go on to a rewarding afterlife.
    We have Mr Farage’s word for that.

  2. This Guardian ‘Long Read’ article explains why Farage has taken the route that he has:

    His difficulty will come with Westminster elections; not only does FPTP present a hurdle for him, but also he will not be able to get away with having no manifesto which he has done for the euro-elections. His best hope at Westminster is to drag the Tory party over to him, by only running candidates against non-Brexiteer Tories and by offering support to the more extreme Brexiteers.

  3. “…..Nigel Farage has learned from his mistakes”

    Isn’t it a good thing that everyone does that? When I stuff up, sometimes big time, I do try to console myself with the thought that I’ve just learned a valuable lesson.

    I guess we’re all agreed that the problem is the rise of the far right in the EU. The lesson we are all urged to learn from history is , of course, the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, and the world war that followed, costing some 60 million lives. However this cannot be understood outside the context of the world economic crisis that broke out in 1929 and the slump that followed.

    Prior to the crisis, Weimar Germany’s fascist movement was a marginal phenomenon, prone to street violence against leftists and the Jewish community but, all the same, by and large politically insignificant. The Nazi Party received only 2.8 percent in the 1928 federal elections. Not a dissimilar figure to what we might have expected here at one time from the far right. This changed rapidly as the economic crisis deepened. The German government’s harsh austerity measures brought unbelievable suffering to the population with the poorest suffering the most. Those in that position tend not to analyse the situation in terms that, perhaps, the Government should run a more expansionary fiscal policy. If they are hungry and they see members of a different ethnic grouping doing relatively much better we know which way they are going to go. Unemployment skyrocketed from 1.2 million 1929 to 6 million in 1932. The rest, as they say, is history.

    So contrary to recent popular opinion, a misconception fostered by conservative/neoliberal forces, it wasn’t the inflation which brought about the rise of Hitler. We should not accept, as an excuse for German imposed austerity on the EU, a German fear of inflation that almost destroyed their country. It wasn’t the inflation of the 1920s that did the damage – it was the austerity of the 1930s.

    So how best to stand up to Farage? As if we are going to make any significant progress by personalising the issue! He’s not so much the problem as the rise of far right forces generally, and which the EU needs to accept responsibility for. Without the EU we wouldn’t have Nigel Farage or Marine le Pen! This can only be countered by successfully opposing and so abolishing the austerity economics of the European Union. Nothing less will do it I’m afraid. The question of whether we can best do that by staying in the EU or leaving is debatable. It may not be totally impossible to significantly reform the EU, as some like Yanis Varoufakis and his DiEM 25 party,are trying to, but you’d have to be an extreme optimist to think that was at all likely.

    Not that the best and the brightest in the EU should need DiEM25. They should be capable of learning from their own mistakes.

    1. That’s an interesting perspective on the rise of the Nazis. My view is that there was noting inevitable about their taking power, and therefore Europe going back to war. I can’t remember the sequence of events that led to the Wiemar regime’s austerity policies. I wuld have thought the collapse of the currency had something to do with it. Historians point out that it wiped out the savings of middle income people (petty-bourgeois in the lingo of the time) which then formed the bedrock of the Nazi movement. Fear of savings being undermined is one the things that limits the reach of current radicals (why the Greeks didn’t drop out of the Euro for example). Still what amounts to classic Keynesian expansionism is a large measure of how Hitler consolidated his power – and surely it would not have been hard to start it a bit earlier?
      The rise of the new fascism is a worry, and financial hardship will tend to feed it. But I don’t think Europe’s economic problems are mainly about austerity. Areas of high unemployment also have what neoliberals call market rigidities; freer markets (like those in the UK) have much stronger employment. And I think the rise of the Brexit Party isn’t primarily about austerity – so many of its supporters are pensioners who have been spared austerity – the only group to get richer since the great crisis, I think. Still I think the powers that be in the EU are running unnecessary risks in keeping the fiscal regime so tight.
      Everybody (even Salvini and Le Pen) now says they need to reform the EU from the inside. Just how that is done is really hard to see – but the process of debate could lead to the beginnings of a European demos. It would be ironic if the nationalists led this.

  4. Wiki puts it at 2.6% for the 1928 elections with the Nazis actually losing a couple of seats. I should have checked my previous reference.

    The Weimar inflation was in the early 20’s and the economy was showing signs of stabilisation and growth by 1928 so there was no real reason for the majority of voters to be ultra radical. There was no way they were going to restore the value of any lost marks. It was the crash of 1929 which threw the system into reverse. Austerity economics again!

    They certainly had a curious voting system that doesn’t support the case for PR. The Saxon Peasants Party picked up a couple of seats with 0.4% of the vote.

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