On Monday morning, Nigel Farage announced that the Brexit party, of which he is leader, will not be running against 317 Tory MPs at the forthcoming general election.
That represents a major climbdown by the former Dulwich College student, probably the greatest of his political career to date. Only a week ago the Brexit party was committed to standing 600 candidates across the country. In May’s European elections it gained 29 MEPs, achieving a higher percentage of the vote than even Ukip ever did. That same month, albeit briefly, it was polling above both Labour and the Tories in headline voting intention for a general election. Until last week it was the second most popular party among leave voters – ahead of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.
The reasoning Farage gave for the climbdown was partially true: the Brexit party running in every seat, including those presently held by the Tories, made a second referendum more likely. But that shouldn’t be over-emphasised, because when you look at the party’s polling since the Summer, especially over the last month, and indeed Nigel Farage’s popularity among leave voters, you begin to see a very different picture.
The brutal reality is that leave voters are returning to the big two. That is obviously of greater benefit to the Tories than Labour since it was primarily their party that lost the most voters in the first place. As I wrote in Monday morning’s It’ll Go Higher? newsletter, 66% of Labour leave voters have now returned to Jeremy Corbyn’s party – up 9% in just one week. Between an already impressive Labour ground game and the Tories adopting a hard line on Britain’s departure from the EU, it was increasingly clear that the Brexit party would slump. It is for that reason that Nigel Farage wouldn’t stand as a candidate anywhere – because he would have been humiliated. In retrospect the Peterborough by-election, which Labour won, was a crucial moment for both parties. The Brexit party’s best hope of winning a seat is almost certainly behind it.
For now, Farage maintains that the party will only stand candidates in Labour seats ahead of December. Because almost the entirety of Britain’s political media runs on repeating conventional wisdom – it really is one big exercise in bandwagoning bias – journalists are already saying that favours the Tories. And while it does, it’s marginal, and the reality is it will make very little difference. If anything, the Brexit party standing in Labour seats and not Tory ones will make it far easier to paint Boris Johnson and Farage as two cheeks of the same arse, something evident in the response from Ian Lavery to Monday morning’s announcement and a subsequent tweet by Jeremy Corbyn, who declared that such a move represented a “Trump alliance” whose politics was “Thatcherism on steroids”. What powered the Brexit party previously, and Ukip before them, was not only a desire to leave the EU but an almost primal anger with politics as usual. Monday’s move means the Brexit party have completely forsaken that mantle – it is one Labour should grab with both hands.
The question for those who favour a second referendum is now this: are the Liberal Democrats going to hand the Tories a majority? My answer to that, since even before Jo Swinson became party leader, has been… perhaps – and they don’t care. Their strategy, moderately successful until the last few weeks, was to attack Labour and appeal to Tory voters who plumped for remain in 2016 – the so called ‘soft Tory’ vote. Yet they are now in retreat and, as with the Brexit party, Labour is getting votes back from them too – last week garnering 48% of its remain voters from 2017 – up ten points on a week earlier. As I also wrote in It’ll Go Higher, the ‘remain alliance’ recently hatched between the Liberal Democrats, Plaid and the Greens isn’t working: Plaid are on 0% according to Opinium (a statistical outlier, but interesting nevertheless), while the Greens and even Jo Swinson’s party are seeing support decline. One bright spot was the local Green party standing down in Chingford, where left favourite Faiza Shaheen is looking to defeat Iain Duncan-Smith. This now needs to be repeated everywhere else where Labour can beat the Tories. As Matthew Butcher, former advisor to Green co-leader Caroline Lucas put it:
In almost half a century the Greens have only ever won a single parliamentary seat, and have never participated in a government of any kind. The idea they would run – and under a ‘remain’ umbrella’ – against candidates offering a second referendum and the most radical programme for energy transition in Britain’s history is absurd. What is more, they are doing so in partnership with a Liberal Democrat party which has supported fracking, is committed to zero carbon by 2045, and whose leader has a red line with Labour which reads ‘Trident’.
The response will no doubt be that Labour needs to play ball too – that they should make way for other parties where it can’t win either. While that is somewhat true, the reality is that it is only they who are competitive with the Tories in most places – more so after the events of this morning.
Consider this. Of the 67 seats the Tories won in 2017 where their majority is 10 points or less, Labour is second in 54 of them, the SNP in eight and the Liberal Democrats in just five. Where the Tory majority was less than five points two years ago, Labour was second in 35 seats and the Lib Dems in just three. In other words in 88% of those seats with a slim Tory lead (of 5% or less) Labour is the best placed alternative. Any pact which reflects this reality will be rejected by the Liberal Democrats. Why? Because this is about recovering seats at Westminster, no matter the cost.
Within that context it is ridiculous to point to polls from last May. As the numbers behind the Tories, Labour, the Brexit party and Lib Dems now attest they aren’t particularly relevant, no matter what their millionaire backed front groups say on their fake websites calculating the ‘best’ anti-Tory option.
Today’s decision by the Brexit party has thrown this election into stark relief – far more quickly than many expected. For the Liberal Democrats and particularly the Greens it poses a question – what do you stand for? For Labour it means something important: it can only win this election fighting on class politics and against the elite. Today’s decision by Farage just made that a whole lot easier. A pact with the other parties, at a local level, is fine – but it must be based on reality. And the reality is in almost every seat the best anti-Tory option is Labour.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media co-founder and contributing editor.