In early-November, Nigel Farage and Richard Tice announced that they had registered with the Electoral Commission to re-name ‘The Brexit Party’ to ‘Reform UK’. The move had been anticipated by a few journalists (including myself) for a while, as Farage had said as early as December 2019 that he was attempting to set up a ‘Reform Party’. He even said back then that he’d already registered the name whilst talking to Sky’s Sophy Ridge (although there was no sign of this in the applications section on the Electoral Commission website). A few days ago, the Commission gave the go-ahead to the rename, and today Chairman Richard Tice held a press conference at which he announced the formation of Reform UK Scotland, with former Conservative-turned-Independent MSP Michelle Ballantyne leading the regional party’s efforts.
There’s been much talk in the press about where Reform UK can look to gain votes. Some have suggested they could focus on areas such as Essex and Kent, where despite there being a tradition of voting for the Conservatives but also where UKIP had a large following. Some have suggested that the party’s appeal will be strongest in deprived areas, in places such as Wales, the North of England and along the British coast. Whilst many see Farage as somewhat of a Thatcherite, UKIP’s appeal wasn’t limited to the South-East, but gained traction across the country. Even as soon-back as the last election, the Brexit Party’s best results were in Barnsley and Blaenau Gwent — traditionally Labour areas.
The truth is, Reform UK has the potential to appeal to a large portion of the electorate. What will determine this appeal will be the policies they choose to adopt and the message they want to give out. Whilst many (thanks to Farage’s image) thought The Brexit Party’s 2019 manifesto (and indeed UKIP’s in 2015) was right-wing on economic policy, the truth is that it was in the centre. With UKIP’s manifesto, this was likely largely down to the fact that Suzanne Evans was in charge of policy overall and Patrick O’Flynn was the Economics Spokesman. O’Flynn is now a vocal supporter of the economically centre-left Social Democratic Party, and Evans has spoken at their conference. Whilst these people didn’t have an impact on The Brexit Party’s 2019 policy platform, Farage and Tice knew that, in order to attract Labour Leave voters, they couldn’t adopt a Thatcherite economic policy.
You would have thought that Farage and Tice would decide to opt for this approach again — if they want to win seats in areas where it’s easier for them to (the North, the Midlands, Wales, the South-East), the best policy positions to adopt would be centrist/centre-left economic policy and socially-conservative policies on social issues. Whilst this may well be the case, the messaging from Richard Tice has somewhat blurred the waters.
At today’s Reform UK Scotland press conference, Tice made a point about saying that low taxes, less regulation and ‘less unnecessary Government spending’ would be some of Reform UK’s goals. Whilst UKIP and The Brexit Party’s manifestos did call for lower taxes and a redirection of Government spending, it seems odd that Richard Tice would want to make such a point of it — after all, dissatisfied Labour voters in the North won’t vote for a party with a Tory-style economic policy.
If Reform UK chose to take a position specifically on the left or right of politics, they could potentially make progress in a limited amount of areas. However, if the party is serious about getting into Parliament, and possibly even Opposition or Government, the only way they will get this support is if they adopt a populist and syncretic, or big-tent, policy platform. The Brexit Party’s 2019 manifesto (and indeed list of candidates) roughly followed this position, so it wouldn’t be difficult for Reform UK to adopt it.
Big-tent politics has popped up around the world, from Winston Peter’s New Zealand First party to the Five Star Movement in Italy. I’d even argue that UKIP was a big-tent party in it’s heyday of 2014–2016, containing those slightly to the left on economic policy such as Patrick O’Flynn, as well as those further to the right, such as Raheem Kassam. This is why they managed to get a fairly broad support base, in terms of both geographical locations and voter backgrounds.
Political commentators and journalists have long-said that there is a gap in politics for a party with slightly centre-left economic policies and socially conservative cultural and social policies. This is the void that Reform UK should be aiming to represent, as it would gain them voters in both the ‘Tory heartlands’ of Essex and Kent, as well as traditional Labour areas such as Wales, the North and the Midlands. Potentially, adopting this sort of policy platform could pave the way for Reform UK to become a major force in the House of Commons.
Of course, Tice’s pushing of the low-tax, low-regulation message could turn out to be nothing, but if Reform UK wants to succeed they have a decision to make — aim for the right, aim for the left, or aim down the middle.
This article is purely analytical, and is not intended to express any personal or political opinions.