Many pixels and much paper have been spent trying to explain UKIP and, briefly, the Brexit Party. Some see them as having been driven mainly by economics, and the effect of the financial crash and techological change on living standards, jobs and security. Others highlight the role of culture, citing the long-term effect of mass immigration, changing social attitudes, and the deracination of the main political parties.
Others still go for a more simple explanation: lots of people just wanted to leave the European Union.
That last take has another dimension to it. The odds are stacked against a new political party in the UK – all the more now that European elections, the stage for UKIP’s main electoral successes, are no more. First past the post is a high barrier to entry.
Recent history suggests that, to succeed, a new party either needs a clear objective to spearhead its appeal, as the Brexit Party and UKIP had, or a significant number of Parliamentary defections from one or more of the main parties, like the Social Democratic Party during the 1980s. It also helps to have a leader who can cut through to a slice of the electorate – a thought that allows us to cram Roy Jenkins and Nigel Farage into the same sentence.
This takes us to Lawrence Fox, who is reported to be launching a new political party. He wants it to champion free speech, “reform publicly funded, controlled and operated institutions” (the BBC, anyone?) and preserve our national history and cultural inheritance.
It’s a programme without a measurable objective (unlike UKIP’s) and without the prospect of MP defections – at least, as far as we know. Perhaps we are under-estimating Fox, but it seems unlikely to us that this project will take off. The political landscape is littered with the wreckage of failed political parties: the Jury team, Renew, the SDP itself and, talking of parties which picked up support in Parliament, the Independent Group for Change.
Money doesn’t equal success: James Goldsmith pushed a chunk of his considerable fortune at the Referendum Party during the mid-1990s. It failed to win a single Commons seat in 1997. Nor does name recognition: in the post-expenses scandal general election of 2010, Esther Rantzen won only four per cent of the vote in Luton South.
You may say that this is too Westminster-focused a view. What about the dominance of the SNP at Holyrood? Or the mass of independents and members of small parties who together make up the fourth biggest force in English local government? Or the independent mayor in Middlesbrough?
Nonetheless, it’s striking how the sprawling patchwork of directly elected Mayors in England, and of Police and Crime Commissioners, remains largely red or blue. Ken Livingstone won the London mayoralty as Labour’s candidate second time round, though only after his victory as an independent in the first contest. But before we write off new challengers altogether, it’s worth pausing for thought.
For perhaps we’re becoming too complacent about the Conservatives having no real opposition to their right.
After all, Farage and his parties were a feature of British politics for the best part of ten years – between the formation of the Coalition in 2010 and the advent of Boris Johnson last year. Perhaps the next new challenger party in British politics will be from the Left, like Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. (Mind you, UKIP and the Brexit Party won a slice of former Labour and “natural Labour voters”.) Or even from the Rory Stewart-flavoured centre.
But the story of the last ten years suggests that the Tories are most vulnerable of the main parties to electoral newcomers. These have occupied ground, to use crude but effective labelling, to the right of the Party. As David Gauke pointed out in his ConservativeHome column on Saturday, there is now distance between Johnson and Tory backbench opinion on Coronavirus policy, and potentially on a Brexit trade deal, too.
A new challenger could be anti-lockdown, libertarian in flavour, pro-free market – troubled by what its supporters would see as a Tory shift to Red Wall statism and authoritarian virus control. In our view, this would be an elite project. Which may help to explain why Farage has not yet put himself at the head of an anti-shutdown movement.
Or it could be more like UKIP, fishing in the waters that Fox is dipping into: anti-mass migration; pro-economic intervention, massing itself to challenge Black Lives Matter, the Left in our universities, the mainstream media – “wokeness” everywhere.
The EU referendum and its aftermath took the Conservatives up to about 40 per cent of the vote or so. Theresa May Mark One, before the 2017 election, kept support there. May Mark Two, afterwards, didn’t do so. Johnson rebuilt that backing and, last December, mobilised it at the polls.
He is now trying to keep that coalition of voters together amidst a pandemic of global scale. That entails not giving Farage – or anyone else – an opening to his right. Especially with the Conservative backbenches in their current mutinous condition.