What Can the Left Learn From Nigel Farage?

No more asking nicely.

by Joe Todd

11 July 2024

Nigel Farage on the campaign trail, July 2024. Chris Ratcliffe/Reuters

Nigel Farage’s decades-long fight to reconfigure British politics is entering its next phase. Last Thursday, the Reform party achieved a five-seat foothold in parliament, and came second place in around 100 more constituencies. 

The Conservative party now faces what could be an existential choice in its leadership election.  One option is to plump for a liberal centrist like Jeremy Hunt or Tom Tugendhat and battle it out with the Lib Dems in the south east, ceding northern towns and coastal areas to Reform. The other (more likely) option is to elect a Kemi Badenoch or Suella Braverman and embrace Farage’s culture wars and economic interventionism. 

With little formal power and – in his own words – without a single bullet being fired, Farage has successfully organised popular resentment against the status quo and reshaped British politics more than any politician since Margaret Thatcher. In a moment of new possibilities for the electoral left, and with a not dissimilar task ahead, the question is: how has he done it?

Hard power.

Farage’s approach has always been clear: shift the nation’s politics by transforming the Tory party into a vehicle of the populist right. He created an outsider party that cost the Tories votes, seats and majorities, while at the same time organising sympathetic MPs within their ranks. He built his profile as controversialist-in-chief for an enthusiastic media, polarising coverage of immigration and extracting concessions from liberal Tories who just wanted him to disappear. He understood that Labour would come along for the ride and ‘oppose’ him by adopting his talking points – both an ideological instinct of the party’s old right and a triangulation to appeal to socially conservative red wall voters.

Farage’s mercilessness is notable. Only once did he hold back from running against the Tories – in the 2019 election when Boris Johnson’s Brexit purism and the threat of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government persuaded him to stand down candidates in Tory seats (although only at the very last minute and after he’d extracted every concession possible). In 2015, he almost cost the party its slim majority by taking more than twice as many of its voters than Labour’s. In 2024, he decided the time had come to destroy the Conservatives – almost a quarter of 2019 Tory voters switched to Reform. Rather than avoiding rocking the boat, Farage has made his name trying to capsize it. 

Contrast this with the approach of the ‘green blob’ of centre-left climate NGOs in their attempts to influence the Labour party. These organisations have budgets running into the tens of millions, huge supporter lists, and the backing of big philanthropic funders (some of whom are now funnelling money into Keir Starmer’s Labour Together faction). Yet for the last five years, they’ve sat on their hands and waited for a Labour majority, even as the party cut its £28bn green investment pledge to shreds. Their strategy was also clear: ask nicely and get what you can, not what’s needed to avert the climate crisis. Don’t take risks or rock the boat. Trust in Starmer to deliver.

This focus on soft power alone – the inside game of cajoling and persuasion, being in the room and having the ear of a potentially sympathetic minister – is extremely limited. I know this from experience: I worked as Momentum’s press officer over two elections. While acting as a friendly face helped soften some of the coverage we received, I operated within a narrow window. I had no power over what journalists actually wrote. I didn’t have anything they needed. I couldn’t inflict a cost. 

Pursuing the inside game empowers your target: your entire strategy is based on access which can be taken away at any moment. For think tanks, a well-executed soft power strategy makes sense, as a think tank’s job is to write policy for ministers. But for NGOs, which try to cultivate insider relationships while also running outsider campaigns, there’s an obvious contradiction – campaign too effectively, and you lose your access to power. The result is a sad halfway house: you’re neither useful to insiders, nor have any power to move them. 

Farage has a keen understanding of this dynamic. He’s cultivated hard power: the ability to inflict a cost on your target and make it change its behaviour. Organising trade unions do this too, using the threat of strike action to build leverage for negotiation. Hard power is when you become part of your target’s calculation. It’s when you matter, and you must be accounted for.

A changing calculation.

Ever since winning the 2020 Labour leadership race, Keir Starmer had made the left his foil. Despite his early pledges, all remnants of Corbynism were to be banished within a “changed” Labour party, with Corbyn himself a figure to flagellate in full view of the electorate. 

But while talk of not shifting an inch hasn’t disappeared, strange new phrases are creeping into Sunday paper briefings: the “populist threat to his left” that Starmer is yet to “get to grips with”; reports of how his team were “taken aback by the strength of the pro-Palestine vote” at the general election. Elsewhere, Tony Blair-era advisor John McTernan has called for Labour to “take the votes lost over Gaza as seriously as we took the loss of [the] red wall”, sensing a looming electoral catastrophe that could easily be missed in the hubris of victory. 

The election of five pro-Palestinian independents – including Corbyn – along with four Green MPs has changed Starmer’s electoral calculation. Assumptions about the viability of independent and third party candidates have been swept away. The Greens came in second in 39 constituencies (most with a suspiciously Corbynite demographic), and some pollsters have suggested the collapse in Labour’s Muslim vote isn’t a momentary response to the party’s blunders on Gaza, but part of a longer-term trend.

The left would do well to look to Farage for instruction. With a club in one hand and an olive branch in the other, he torments the Tories from the outside while organising sympathetic MPs within. He wages war on the party, while openly flirting with the idea of swooping in and rescuing it from the carnage he helped create. His relationship with Reform has a similar dynamic: in charge but often absent, focused on electing Donald Trump until he sniffed an opportunity back home. Farage embraces an approach of constructive ambiguity and of seizing opportunities, understanding how seemingly opposed strategies can in fact be complementary.  

If Farage was paying attention, he’d laugh at the never-ending argument on the left about whether to stay in Labour or leave. Aside from reducing questions of strategy to moralising about individual behaviour, it poses a zero-sum binary that he’d find alien. By asking whether you should stay or leave, you miss the Faragist approach of doing both at once – and in a mutually reinforcing way.

Farage has always cultivated links with ideologically aligned MPs within the Conservative party. He’s left open the idea that he may one day join. Every vote he takes from them strengthens the hand of hard right Tory MPs. And the more viable Reform becomes, the more leverage his Tory allies have, as they can always go elsewhere. In short, the stronger Farage is outside the party, the stronger he is within it. 

It’s a shame that leftwing Labour MPs have been so maligned for their timidity during Starmer’s tenure. The relative silence of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs wasn’t due to a moral failing, but their status as Labour MPs being in the gift of a hostile leadership. They fairly assumed that running as independents was electoral suicide, and with no viable party of refuge, they kept their heads down and prioritised survival.

Now, emboldened by the success of independent and Green candidates, these Labour MPs can be strident in their criticism of Starmer and leverage the public’s indifference towards him. They can form a leftwing caucus across party lines, exposing the prime minister’s politics by forcing him into deals with the Lib Dems. They can identify their own small boats issue, and use their platform to court controversy. And they can do all of this safely in the knowledge that they can cross the floor to the Greens or run as independents and have a decent chance of success. 

Some of the left – including myself – were late to the party in 2024, still suffering a hangover from Corbynism and pessimistic after Jamie Driscoll’s drubbing in the north east mayoral election. Many failed to spot the potent mix of a well-organised Muslim community, rage over Gaza, and the lack of threat from the Tory party. How can they meet the moment in 2029? 

A popular left alliance.

Which party or parties will emerge as the vehicle for our efforts remains to be seen. The Greens are an attractive prospect, especially for urban Corbynites eager for the more straightforward proposition of contesting diverse, graduate heavy seats where there’s little need to compromise on values or policy. There are complications: two of the Greens’ current seats have a Tory/rural hue, and their activist bases aren’t all radical leftists. Indeed, their strength in a particular type of seat may limit their ability to become a majority-seeking party, struggling to contest the small town and rural constituencies that Reform performed so well in. 

Pro-Palestinian independent candidates have been well coordinated and resourced behind the scenes, and the high level of natural organisation in Muslim communities is a real strength. But could 2024 have been their high point? If the next election sees a hard-right Conservative party running Labour close, and Gaza is out of the news, might Muslim voters reluctantly vote Labour to keep the Tories out?

And then the rest. There’s Assemble, which ran candidates chosen by community assemblies rather than by cliques of insiders. There’s Collective, a network run by Karie Murphy and other senior Corbyn figures, and then, of course, there is Corbyn himself. 

Nobody should underestimate the difficulties of founding a new party that can accommodate disparate tendencies and personalities. But can some form of alliance be forged? Squint and you can see a popular left alliance at the next election: a pact between the Green party mobilising left-behind graduates in cities like London, Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds; a community-rooted Muslim party strong in Birmingham, Bradford, Dewsbury and Leicester, and a union-backed Workers’ party (no, not that one) battling Reform and Labour in Yorkshire and north eastern towns. Such an alliance could win 30 seats or more. Combine those with the 28 or so Socialist Campaign Group MPs – including a few new faces thanks to Momentum’s quiet efforts at this general election – and you’re beginning to enter the realm of legislative significance. 

Much will hang on Starmer’s ability to concretely improve people’s everyday lives. Or in one aide’s words, “people have to feel they can go to B&Q on a Sunday to pick up everything they need to redecorate their child’s bedroom”. But in a context of rising costs – from the climate crisis to geopolitical shocks – £20bn of already-pencilled-in public service cuts and Starmer’s aversion to any policy seen as too Corbynite, the path looks tricky. Perhaps their best (and most sinister) bet is the Blackrockification of the UK state: offer public subsidies to asset managers who can pour trillions into privatising state infrastructure, improve people’s lives in the short term and potentially win Starmer the election in 2029 – but extract rents and interest from us for decades to come. 

Whatever path it takes, the prize for the left is perhaps greater than even Farage’s accomplishments so far: an insurgent alternative to Labour that can reconfigure its politics and – if it wins enough seats – exercise legislative power. It will take bravery and a willingness to impose costs on Labour in terms of votes, seats and – yes – risking Tory majorities. One term of Starmerism might feel like a mild reprieve after 14 years of Conservative rule, but centrist managerialism is in no way capable of solving or even ameliorating the problems we face. The supposed hard realities of first-past-the-post and the historic record of third parties have been excuses for electoral timidity since 2019. But there was no reckoning with the fact that Farage exercised huge power by costing the Tories rather than winning seats, and the left could have taken a similar approach. In an age of rock-bottom voter loyalty and deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, there’s now the chance to build an electoral alliance outside of the Labour party. The left should take it.

Joe Todd is an organiser and writer.

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