How will Reform UK impact the general election?

If we thought Britain was in a mess under the current government, the arrival of right-wing fringe politics, and a party that can't seem to differentiate between candidates who are dead or alive, could come at a heavy cost.

Right-Wing Watch

It’s been a difficult couple of weeks for Reform UK. A number of its candidates were removed from the party over racist tweets and other offensive comments. Following an investigation by Hope Not Hate, a further two candidates were dropped after accusations they made racist remarks on social media. The controversy prompted party leader Richard Tice to warn candidates about posting online after consuming alcohol. Fuelling the embarrassment was an apology Reform made after firing one candidate for being ‘inactive’ when he was actually dead. 

Yet despite the spate of bad press about the unsavoury social media activity of a number prospective parliamentary candidates, and awkward errors, the party is enjoying its highest ever level of support, at least according to the opinion polls. A recent survey put the right-wing party on 15 percent of the vote, up by one point compared to the previous poll, and just six points behind the Tories.

When he kicked off his general election campaign earlier this year, Richard Tice, said he would be ‘pleased’ if he could help ‘punish the utter failure of the Conservative Party,’ while labelling a Labour win ‘Starmergeddon.’

Fighting talk from the self-proclaimed ‘no-nonsense’ leader, but will Reform actually win any seats? Or will Tory voter defectors to the right-wing insurgents do little more than gift Labour a majority? Will history repeat itself in, due to our current electoral system, crushing the insurgent party’s seeming uprise?

2015 all over again?

mega poll by YouGov of more than 18,000 people published last week, suggests that history will indeed repeat itself, projecting that Reform would come second in 36 constituencies but not win any seats, as Britain’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system makes it difficult for minor parties to break through.

Such an outcome would mirror the 2015 general election, when Nigel Farage’s UKIP won 3.8m votes but only managed to amass one MP, as did the Greens, despite having won 1.1m votes. In other words, the two parties managed to secure a staggering five million votes between them but only gain two MPs.

The shared misfortunes deepened calls for the need for electoral reform to replace FPTP with proportional representation. If we look to Europe, where similar discontent with the establishment has taken hold and populist support is on the rise, insurgent parties are doing well. But unlike the UK’s FPTP system, most countries in Europe use some form of proportional representation (PR) to elect their MPs. In fact, excluding the authoritarian state of Belarus, France is the only other country in Europe that sticks to a ‘one-person-takes-all’ system. Under PR, which sees the distribution of seats correspond closely with the proportion of the votes cast for each party, Farage’s party in 2015 would have become a genuine parliamentary force.

Following the 2015 election, Farage expressed his anger towards the FPTP arrangement, fuming “we’ve got half of the Labour vote [almost 9.4 million], yet we’ve got this outcome.” But he remained optimistic, saying the number of UKIP voters confirmed that the party can grow, believing the Labour vote in the north of England was especially vulnerable.

Four years later in 2019, there was a different but equally dispiriting outcome for UKIP – which had by then rebranded as the Brexit Party. During the run-up to the election, the Brexit Party was, like Reform is today, riding high in the polls. In June, Farage’s party surged into first place as voters’ favourites, according to one opinion poll. The survey suggested that the party would be 20 seats short of a majority, with the Conservatives reduced to 26 MPs. One of the most dramatic developments during the election campaign was when Farage announced on November 11 that his party would not contest the seats that were being defended by the Tories. Rather, it would concentrate on the seats that were in Labour’s control. What resulted was the Brexit Party gaining a paltry 2 percent of the vote and zero MPs. The party was described by politics professor Robert Ford as an ‘electoral flop,’ with their efforts likely to have saved several Labour incumbents by ‘splitting the Leave vote.’

But Richard Tice has ruled out making any kind of ‘pact’ with the Conservatives. Following their best-ever byelection result in February, when they gained 13 percent in Wellingborough and 10 percent in Kingswood, Tice said ‘Tory MPs deserve to face redundancy for their woeful performance.’

Brexit voters are turning to Reform?

In another blow to Rishi Sunak, the latest polling shows the Brexit voters are backing Reform UK over the Conservatives for the first time. 35 percent of Leave voters plan to back Reform, up two percent from the following week, 33 percent plan to support the Tories, down one percentage point, while a further 22 percent of Leave voters are set to support Labour, the polling shows.

“People like what they hear and the courage with which we tell it as it is. We’re continuing to grow and grow. Something is happening out there, of that there is no doubt, and the Tories are terrified,” Tice told the Telegraph in response to the poll.

This is fighting talk, but it doesn’t take a psephologist to deduce that Reform and the Tories are running neck and neck in hoovering up ex-Brexit voters. Labour could benefit from that split, especially given the numbers who seemed to have turned their backs on right-wing politics.

While we may never know how the Brexit Party would have performed if Farage hadn’t pulled out of safe Tory seats, talk of ‘splitting the vote’ evokes memories of the Labour-SDP split in 1981. The formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981 was the culmination of a long campaign by a small group of Labour MPs looking for a realignment of the left to counteract the growing militancy of the Labour party and offer a credible alternative to Thatcherism. In 1981, the SDP formed an alliance with the Liberal Party. In the 1983 general election, the SDP-Alliance won 25.4 percent of the vote, while Labour won 26.7 percent. Yet just 23 Alliance MPs were elected, compared to Labour’s 209.

It is often claimed that the Labour/SDP split gifted Margaret Thatcher her landslide the 1983 and kept the Tories in power for the next 13 years. Such is the brutality of our FPTP system.

A Canada-style Tory collapse?

Another potential outcome in the forthcoming general election is that the Conservatives completely collapse. If Reform got much over 25 percent of the vote at the Tories’ expense, they could suddenly pick up a large number of seats, especially if their support was concentrated in one or two areas like the North and the Midlands. A scary thought, but, if the recent mega poll is anything to go by which projects Reform will come second in 36 seats, it is one that looks unlikely.

That said, it is worth remembering what happened in the Canadian elections in 1993. Like Britain, Canada is home to a FPTP electoral system. Considered one of the most eventful elections in Canada’s history, the Progressive Conservative Party (PC), which had been in power since 1984, lost 167 seats, retaining only two, despite winning 16 percent of the votes. Adding to the insult, the party’s leader and Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, lost her seat.  It was a near-wipeout in the face of the insurgent populist Reform Party. The two parties later merged to form the modern-day Conservative Party of Canada.

The renewed threat from the Right in Britain via the Reform Party, echoes the threat Canada faced 30 years ago, and carries with it the possibility of the Tories facing extinction.

Lee Anderson’s constituency of Ashfield is in the top ten seats where Reform is expected to take second place with 23 percent. When asked whether Reform was splitting the Conservative vote, the former Tory Party deputy chairman, who recently delivered a major blow to Rishi Sunak by defecting from the Tory party, gifting Reform its first MP, said: “You could say that the Conservative Party is splitting the vote. There’s a lot of anger out there about the two-party politics.”

A Farage comeback?

Reform’s threat would be more dangerous still if Nigel Farage was to take a prominent position role within the party. Many Tory MPs fear that if the UKIP founder returned as Reform leader, he could turbocharge the party’s general election campaign and help deliver a Tory wipeout. Farage, who is currently Reform’s honorary president, has repeatedly refused to rule-out a political comeback. During an interview with UnHerd in late March, he even raised the suggestion of a ‘reverse takeover’ of the defeated Tories by Reform following the general election. He pointed to the politics of Canada in the 1990s, when the nation’s own Reform Party exploited dissatisfaction with the mainstream centre-right party. Farage has previously urged for unity on the right of UK politics, saying one day himself and the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and other right-wing Tory MPs will ‘have to be in the same party.’ But he admitted that he is still ‘very burnt’ by the 2015 general election when UKIP won almost four million votes but just one MP. Nevertheless, Farage still sets the Tories fluttering as evidenced by the suggestion that he should be offered the post of ambassador to Washington. A Trump presidency and Farage as ambassador? Now that does leave you looking for the exit door.

A Trump intervention?

Talking of Trump, Nigel Farage isn’t the only right-wing figure threatening to impact on Britain’s general election. Donald Trump has also entered the fray. Both Conservative and Labour MPs are said to be concerned that the presidential candidate could influence the election, after his former national security adviser John Bolton told the i newspaper that Trump would not be afraid to intervene in this year’s campaign.

“It’s entirely possible he would say something and wouldn’t care about the conventions of not interfering,” said Bolton.

This week Trump hailed Farage as a ‘prophetic leader,’ saying he awaited the Brexit campaigner’s ‘next move.’

While Reform looks to be supportive of a Trump endorsement, with a party source saying they were confident he would be on their side, caution has been raised about what Reform should wish for.

“A Trump intervention here would probably be bad news for whoever he supported. Every opinion poll shows that he is deeply unpopular in the UK,” said Sir David Lidington, former Foreign Office minister with the Conservatives.

A Reform collapse?

With seven in ten Britons holding an unfavourable view of Trump, according to a recent Ipsos poll, any endorsement by the Republican egotist, could well hinder Reform’s performance on polling night, and, potentially, help lead to the collapse of the party.

And the fact that Nigel Farage is still on the fence about a Reform comeback, means the Tories could be spared their worse fears of a Reform led by Farage.

The Starmerite think-tank Labour Together says the most likely way Reform would collapse is if Sunak delivered on his promises on immigration, if their own fortunes fell dramatically, or if they decided not to stand against the Tories, as their predecessor UKIP did in 2019. The centrist Labour think-tank calculates that this scenario would result in ‘a dramatic narrowing of the vote’ with Labour’s lead cut to 4 points, resulting in a hung parliament.

While Labour Together states such a projection is ‘not a likely scenario,’ it does of course hammer home the message repeated by Starmer’s campaigns director Morgan McSweeney that Labour cannot afford to be complacent.

Given the promise of reckless tax and spending cuts, together with nationalistic demands, as Tice set out in Reform’s election agenda earlier this year, including reducing net immigration to zero and no efforts to battle climate change, voters cannot afford to be complacent about the consequences of the insurgent party having parliamentary power. If we thought Britain was in a mess under the current government, the arrival of right-wing fringe politics, and a party that can’t seem to differentiate between candidates who are dead or alive, could come at a heavy cost.

Right-Wing Media Watch – Fleet Street karma? Murdoch UK empire with a further £51mn phone hacking hit

It’s not been a great start to 2024 for Murdoch’s UK media empire. Last month, it was announced that TalkTV, the group’s fledgling TV channel, was to be pulled off linear TV stations and replaced with an online-only model. The station, which was struggling to compete with its right-wing rival network GB News, was forced to take a hit of around £54 million in its first full year due to rising operating costs.

Continuing its run of bad fortune, it was announced this week that the group’s UK newspapers have sustained yet more costs in the ongoing phone hacking scandal against the Sun and the now defunct News of the World. The scandal broke over a decade ago, when investigations showed the newspaper was engaged in phone hacking activities, targeting politicians, celebrities, members of the Royal Family, and the phones of the relatives of the deceased in high-profile cases.

The media group admitted to that phone hacking practices took place at the News of the World, which was at one time the world’s highest-selling English-language newspaper. The scandal led to a public inquiry, a police investigation and ultimately the newspaper’s closure. The Sun however has battled on.

In March, Prince Harry sought to expand his privacy invasion lawsuit against News Group Newspapers, alleging that the publisher of the Sun unlawfully intercepted phone calls of his late mother, Princess Diana, and his father, then the Prince of Wales.

The latest News UK annual accounts show the group has been hit by and additional £51mn in costs, taking the total in settlements and legal costs to over £1bn. Most of the costs accumulated which relate to phone hacking, are covered by Murdoch’s US-listed Fox Corporation, which, when the businesses were separated in 2013, agreed to indemnify News Corporation.

The costs mean that the Sun’s publisher, News Group Newspapers, recorded a loss of around £66 million in the year to July 2023.

The Times and the Sunday Times, which are also part of the Murdoch’s News UK, recorded a pre-tax profit for the year. However, it still represented a fall from the £73.2 million recorded in the previous year to £60.9 million.

Sources close to the media group point to the fall in profits being caused by inflationary cost pressures, including wages, energy and printing costs, and a tough advertising market.

The Sun’s misfortunes started to take hold in 2023, when, in June, Rupert Murdoch wrote down the value of the tabloid as zero, amid plummeting advertising and sales revenue at the newspaper.

In a further slap in the face for the Sun, the tabloid lost its 42-year reign as the UK’s best-selling newspaper to the Daily Mail. Not that that’s much to celebrate – two titles known for sensationalist reporting and debateable journalistic practices, topping the best-selling newspaper charts. Though in a piece of Fleet Street karma perhaps, both newspapers recorded sales declines, the Sun’s were just more significant than the Mail’s.

Smear of the Week – Susan Hall ups her ‘fake’ mayoral campaigning

If you live in London or anywhere within the M25, you may have had a threatening-looking leaflet posted through your letter box. These bright yellow leaflets adorned with menacing black lettering, resemble a dreaded parking ticket, known for making our hearts’ sink. But rather than being a penalty notice charge, the leaflet is campaign fodder by the Conservative’s London mayoral candidate Susan Hall.

The leaflets claim that the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is planning on hitting drivers in the capital with a ‘pay-per-mile’ scheme. They even include a barcode, which, when scanned, takes people to a website requesting they fill out a ‘petition’ against the new ‘tax,’ which then collects their data.

The aggressive campaigning has circulated despite the London Mayor repeatedly stating he is not planning to introduce such a scheme. In September, Khan insisted it would not happen, as long as he was mayor.

With polls suggesting the incumbent Labour mayor is the strong favourite to win the May 2 mayoral elections, Conservatives in the capital are getting increasingly desperate. But the campaign is backfiring, with Hall’s opponents accusing her of attempting to ‘panic’ Londoners into handing over their information. Khan’s campaign accused Hall of peddling a ‘desperate’ bid to win votes and a ‘barefaced lie.’

And it gets worse. Political campaigns are required to clearly label their campaign material and alert voters to their source. The ‘fake’ penalty notice leaflets make no such reference, including just small print reference to Susan Hall on the reverse side.

Fact-checkers Full Fact waded into the row. They said there we’re “concerned about these leaflets from the Conservative Party that some of our supporters are receiving through their doors.

“Deceptive campaign practices can mislead the public during elections – and that’s not on.

“Every voter deserves good information,” they wrote.

Alongside the scaremongering leaflets loaded with misinformation, Hall has been accused of posting a fake photo, showing a banner of a pay-per-mile zone alongside an Ultra Low Emission zone banner outside the Tory campaign headquarters in London.

But using scare stories as a deliberate ploy to smear the opposition is a tried and tested method in Tory mayoral election bids.  In a ‘little story about Tory fibbing,’ Dave Hill, author at OnLondon, reminds us how during the last mayoral contest, Tory candidate Shaun Bailey’s campaign deployed a similar tactic, making misleading claims about a Boundary charge idea that Bailey insisted Khan was ‘introducing.’ In reality, the Boundary Charge was merely an option TfL had asked the government to consider.

What, with the New York subway video last week made to imply it was in ‘Armageddon’ London and the hostile penalty notice lookalikes this week, we could have a Right-Wing Watch section devoted entirely to the Tories’ fake mayoral election ads. Mind you, they are getting through to someone given that David Cameron was asked about ‘no go’ London in his Fox News interview this week.   

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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