In October Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), applied to the electoral commission to change the name of his current party from the Brexit Party to ‘Reform’.
He has presented it as the ‘anti-lockdown party’, as well as advocating electoral and constitutional reform. He talks about the economic damage done by lockdown measures and advocates the discredited theory, opposed by most scientists, that isolation of the most vulnerable could go alongside allowing ‘herd immunity’ to develop free of any restrictions for everyone else.
Given his past success with right-wing populism through UKIP, could he be on the way to a comeback? Some liberal commentators have poured cold water over Reform’s prospects, citing a YouGov opinion poll at the beginning of the most recent national lockdown, which said 72% of people supported going into lockdown with only 23% opposed. However, support was lower than at the beginning of the first lockdown measures when it was 93%, and things can change again.
There is no doubt about a growing anger at the government’s handling of the Covid crisis and in particular the impact of its measures on millions of people’s incomes. Added to that, the severe economic crisis is having a devastating effect on jobs.
Space for right-wing populism to grow, in Britain as well as internationally, has been created by millions of people fracturing from the established capitalist parties as a result of their austerity policies. This includes the former workers’ parties such as Labour who shifted rightwards from the 1990s on, carrying out the same austerity when in power. The attacks on living standards following the 2008 capitalist economic crisis exacerbated this.
These parties have claimed to be anti-establishment and to represent ‘the people’, despite being led by the likes of Farage, a former commodities broker. UKIP, established in 1993 with Farage as a co-founder, reached a high point in the 2014 European elections winning 24 seats and 27% of the vote. It was the first time since 1906 that a party other than the Tories or Labour had won a UK-wide election. In the 2015 general election they came third with 12.6% of the vote but only won one seat because of the first past the post electoral system. The one MP was Douglas Carswell, previously a Tory MP, reflecting the fact that many of their forces came in fact from the right of the Tory party.
Farage has been prominent in the media, including appearing on the BBC’s Question Time programme 31 times, who consciously promoted him as a ‘safer’ alternative to the British National Party (BNP). The BNP led by Nick Griffin had followed Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National in France in moving away from their neo-Nazi origins, towards a more respectable right populist image, and achieved some success. The BNP got one million votes in the 2009 European elections, gaining two seats, but later declined and split.
Both the BNP and later UKIP won council seats, but lost them again as those who voted for them discovered they behaved no better than those from the established capitalist parties who cut services. Despite its rhetoric, in power right-wing populism and the far right carry out anti-working class policies.
UKIP built their position primarily because of their support for Brexit, emphasising their opposition to European migration. They based themselves not just on racism and xenophobia, but also the genuine fears of many that a large number of workers from the EU meant a strain on services already cutback, or housing shortages, or would be used by bosses to lower everyone’s wages.
These fears can only be answered by anti-austerity socialist policies to put the money into services and build council homes, as well as wider action like that taken by Lindsey oil refinery construction workers in 2009, with Socialist Party members playing a leading role, to defend pay and conditions for all workers. Unfortunately, the Blairite-led Labour Party supported cuts and austerity, and most of the trade union leadership did not build action in defence of jobs and living standards.
As the Socialist Party pointed out, the result of the 2016 European referendum was at root a revolt against austerity. An exit poll showed that, well above immigration, the biggest issue was that people felt a loss of control over decisions being made. The right-wing leavers’ slogan of ‘take back control’ could refer not just to immigration, but also services, jobs, and worsening conditions.
Boris Johnson also moved to capitalise on this mood and shifted in a populist direction aiming to take some of the ground from UKIP. But this, the fact that the referendum had voted for Brexit, and the subsequent stepping down of Farage as UKIP leader, were not the only factors in their 2017 general election collapse in support to 1.8%. Jeremy Corbyn had been elected Labour leader promising a programme of reversing cuts and privatisation, a minimum wage of £10 an hour, and a restoration of free education. At that stage Corbyn was also saying that the Brexit referendum vote should be respected. An estimated one million people voted Labour that year who had previously voted UKIP, indicating the potential for a clear socialist lead to undercut the support of right-wing populism.
Unfortunately, in the two years following, Corbyn’s attempts to compromise with the Blairites muddied his message, not least on the issue of appearing to step back on respecting the Brexit vote.
As UKIP, after leadership convulsions, turned even further to the right, emphasising an Islamophobic message and courting the likes of the former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson, Farage set up a new party. The Brexit Party stood in the 2019 European elections only a few months after it was formed. Whilst the elections were effectively redundant in themselves as a few months later the UK was set to leave the EU, it was seen by many as a way of reaffirming the referendum vote in the face of establishment attempts to overturn it. In a polarised election the Brexit Party won with five million votes, a 30% share and 29 seats. The governing party, the Tories, came fifth with a mere four seats! Evidence that the Brexit Party were seen as a one issue party was confirmed in the general election a few months later when its vote dropped to 2%.
But can Reform be successful following their rebranding and a focus on opposing lockdown measures? Farage is perfectly capable of opportunistically adapting his message to gain support. His videos earlier in the year filming refugees in the English Channel show he has not given up on his anti-migrant stance. The rise and fall of different vehicles of right-wing populism in Britain over the last few years shows both its instability but also the potential that exists as long as there is no clear mass alternative.
Others have tried to muscle in on Farage’s space such as ‘Reclaim’, the new party announced by actor Laurence Fox with a claimed £5 million in funding from rich backers. However, its focus on the so called ‘culture war’ and opposing what it sees as political correctness would seem to provide a limited appeal as a fully formed party.
Boris Johnson’s attempt to incorporate right-wing populism is increasingly coming up against the anger over his handling of the Covid crisis. The deep fissures in the Tory party have again been exposed by dissent among MPs over the new tiers announced by the government after the second national lockdown. In the conditions of economic crisis and chaos, future significant splits from the Tories are possible with one wing moving towards a populist party.
Mass struggle by the trade unions to defend living standards and jobs could cut across the potential growth by the far right. In particular the burning need to create a mass working class party with socialist policies is the only guarantee against the growth of right-wing populism whatever direction it comes from and whoever emerges to lead it. The Socialist Party is at the forefront of pushing for both.