Nigel Farage Has Spotted a Major Gap in the Political Market

If Britain really is a nation of shopkeepers, Reform UK wants to be their tribune. 

by Aaron Bastani

21 June 2024

A blue-lit crowd watches Nigel Farage talk at a campaign event
Nigel Farage addresses the audience at a campaign event in Blackpool,20 June 2024. Photo: Reuters/Phil Noble

According to Survation, Nigel Farage is on course to become the MP for Clacton – enjoying what would be the largest political swing in history. The polling company’s data suggests the Reform leader could win 42% of the vote, with the Tories set to take 27% and Labour coming third with 24%.

Importantly, Survation’s conclusion isn’t an outlier. Another pollster, Ipsos, recently forecast Reform picking up 53% of voters in Clacton. A reminder: at the last general election the Conservative candidate, Giles Watling, won almost three-quarters of all voters in the seat. After 2019 the Essex constituency was, on paper at least, the government’s fifth safest. 

There is a temptation to treat Farage as purely a media phenomenon: a showman adept at exploiting any opportunity to attract TV cameras, get on BBC Question Time and go viral on TikTok. And that’s fair. But it’s also increasingly clear that his politics and rhetoric are changing as he carves out a new space for himself, not only after Brexit but as living standards stagnate. Out is the bare-faced, unapologetic Thatcherism. In its place, a kind of welfarist nationalism more reminiscent of the Law and Justice party in Poland, or Victor Orban in Hungary. Alongside that, there is a clear effort to champion small business. If Britain really is a nation of shopkeepers, then Farage wishes to be their tribune. 

For a long time the Brexit right, beyond the Conservative mainstream, felt like a Thatcherite re-enactment society. Besides Farage himself, there were the likes of Douglas Carswell, Matthew Elliott and Daniel Hannan, all pitching the idea that leaving the EU would allow greater deregulation and a smaller state. Despite their very real influence, such figures – generally found wandering the free market think tanks of Westminster – had their horizons shaped by the historic success of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the Anglophone world. Gradually, however, Reform and Farage are moving on – and aligning more closely with trends most visible in continental Europe.

Take the party’s manifesto: it’s “pro business” – but in a very different way to the Confederation of British Industry, the Tories and the countless TV pundits who parrot the phrase. Reform plans to lift the threshold to pay corporation tax to £100,000 (it’s presently £50,000) – something it claims will help over 1.2 million small and medium-sized businesses. Corporation tax itself would gradually go from 25% to 15% and, importantly, the VAT threshold would rise to £150,000 (it is now £90,000). 

Elsewhere, and more interesting, is the promise to abolish business rates for small and medium-sized businesses on the high street, paid for by an “Online Delivery Tax” of 4% on “large, multinational enterprises”. The intent, the document states, is that this will “create a fairer playing field for high streets”. Such a proposal would have been unthinkable for the David Cameron administration – and you can almost picture Peter Mandelson mocking the idea. Identikit Thatcherism it ain’t.

And it’s politically smart. Helping the high street and getting big business to pay for it is bound to be popular. Part of the success of Trumpism, in the words of Dan Evans, author of A Nation Of Shopkeepers: The Unstoppable Rise of The Petty Bourgeoisie, is that it (successfully, in 2016) pitted “family capital” against “national and global capital”. It feels like Reform is trying to emulate this. When the party says it supports business, the pitch is overtly to the petit bourgeois – not the big supermarket chains, corporate giants and Linkedin consultants that the current political establishment thinks of as private enterprise.

Besides that, there is plenty more populist fare which isn’t right-coded. Reform proposes to write off student debt for every year that doctors, nurses and medical staff work in the NHS. After ten years of service, health workers’ student debts would be forgiven. This is extraordinarily popular, with one poll showing that 76% of the public support forgiving the student debt of nurses.

Personally, I’d like Labour to propose something like that – as a first step to scrapping fees more generally, but also stopping brain drain from the NHS. Today, the average nurse has £48,000 worth of student debt. It is striking that Farage is offering them more than Keir Starmer. For graduates more broadly, Reform has proposed that interest on student loans would be scrapped.

Even more remarkable is when the party’s manifesto states: “The British taxpayer needs to be in control of Britain’s utilities.” As a result Reform would like to bring “50% of each utility into public ownership”, with the other 50% “owned by UK pension funds, benefiting from new expertise and better management.” The idea that the state would control assets on such a scale sounds similar to France’s Agence des participations de l’État – the government agency responsible for managing the state’s shareholdings in companies of strategic importance. It appears that, in certain sectors at least, Farage and Richard Tice – in their Hunter wellies and Barbour coats – are now promoting French-style dirigisme. Think Gaullism meets GB News. 

Almost as intriguing is how Reform is edging towards a more active industrial policy, particularly within the defence industry. There it plans to “introduce incentives and tax breaks to boost the UK defence industry. Improve equipment self-sufficiency and manufacture world-class products for export”. It’s unlikely that would lead to any meaningful revival of UK arms manufacturing, but the idea the state could provide incentives to private firms that make things was anathema in these circles a few years ago. However, Covid, the cost of living crisis, war in Ukraine – and a general sense of continued decline – has made such ideas far more popular with the public. Populists inevitably follow suit.

Other flourishes include “free education both during and after service” for those in the armed forces, as well as replacing “civil service leaders with successful professionals from the private sector, who are political appointees, who come and go with the government.” In other words, Reform would be looking to enact the greatest changes to the modern civil service since its inception with the Northcote-Trevelyan Report. Elsewhere introducing proportional representation for the Commons is mentioned, as well as reducing the size of an elected House of Lords. 

And to cap it all off? Speaking last week in a televised debate, Farage said he would scrap the two-child benefit cap to encourage larger families – something Labour’s Angela Rayner refused to do. I don’t believe Farage’s empty promises, but policies like this are an important indication that Farage, and Reform, know something has shifted – especially among its target demographic of disaffected, older, former Tories (and maybe Labour voters next time, too). That means the party is now looking across the Channel, rather than back in time to when Thatcher and Reagan reigned supreme. 

This all matters because, until now, Farage – despite being the country’s most popular politician on the right – shared a great deal on policy with Liz Truss, who is widely viewed as a national joke. The former commodities trader has spotted a major gap in the political market – and he could find plenty of buyers.

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.

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