General Election 2024

Election panel: How well is Nigel Farage’s campaign going?

Our panel of experts on whether Reform can tempt over Tory voters

June 10, 2024
Nigel Farage is standing in Clacton-on-Sea. Image: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Nigel Farage is standing in Clacton-on-Sea. Image: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s election season. Prospect has invited writers and experts to an election group chat. Imagine a WhatsApp group of your most politically informed friends from across the ideological spectrum on-hand to discuss the biggest and smallest issues. 

Last week, after Rishi Sunak left D-Day events early, we asked our panellists whether politicians should apologise for their mistakes. Today we asked them about Reform’s chance of success in peeling off Tory votes. We also asked about Nigel Farage’s remarks that Sunak isn’t “patriotic” and does not understand “our culture”. 

Emily Lawford: How well is Nigel Farage doing in mopping up disaffected Tory voters? Was his criticism of Sunak this weekend a step too far?

Moya Lothian-McLean: Reform has got momentum behind it now. Farage entering the race gave it a boost—it’s still seen as an anti-establishment “protest” vote (despite Farage having been in politics as an agitator for nearly 30 years and having managed to see his headline political goals achieved, while never having sat in Westminster). I was out and about speaking to voters this weekend and even ones who said they weren’t voting brought up issues like immigration and small boats as explanations for crumbling living standards—despite being in a constituency with very few asylum seekers housed there and also a rare spot where infrastructure like the NHS/public transport etc is actually very solid! The messaging of Farage has cut through, thanks to the Conservatives adopting it, but the continued Tory attempt to outflank Reform isn’t doing them any favours in the polls—they’re just legitimising Reform’s positions. Disaffected voters will continue either to stay home or just back Reform. In a similar vein, Reform is now polling second, tied with the Tories in places like Wales. Unfortunately, Farage’s comments about Sunak, while clearly racist, appeal to the base he’s built. The fact is, racism has been picked up and wielded by the Conservatives in various ways—now it is being used against Sunak himself and the Reform base either will nod along or not bother to register it.

Peter Hitchens: As I cannot stand Farage, I am not really in a position to answer this. But he is extremely cunning, if not especially intelligent, so it may well work as intended, leaving him as perhaps the only Reform MP at Westminster,  being ignored both by the huge Labour majority he will have helped to deliver, and by the new Lib Dem official opposition. I’ve long wished for the replacement of the Tories by a genuinely conservative formation. But this election does not provide the right conditions for that, and Farage’s Thatcher tribute band wasn’t what I had in mind.

Frances Ryan: I’ll be interested/disturbed in the coming weeks to see how far Farage’s campaign can actually spread. He was relatively subdued at Friday’s debate, and his talking points gained little affection from the audience, which I think shows the only glimmer of hope for progressives. Farage’s support is narrow: he is very popular with the minority who love him but we are still to see whether that can go wide enough for the kind of support needed to get even a few MPs into parliament. Listening to some of his policies in recent days—privatising the NHS to a degree, reforming tax bands—it’s notable they aren’t exactly the lines most voters want to hear who would otherwise be sold on his anti-immigration and faux anti-establishment platform. Whether that matters to his faithful is another matter. 

I’ll also be interested to see how many skeletons come out of the Reform closet if the media (who have generally done a better job in promoting Farage than the best PR agency) do their due diligence and dig into the background of the err somewhat eclectic mix of candidates who have quickly been put together. So far, it’s emerged one Reform prospective MP was fined for… kicking a dog. If Tory and Labour candidates can highlight some issues on a local level, perhaps that will help. But the momentum is undoubtedly with Reform, especially as Sunak’s campaign further derails.

Peter Kellner: Here are the basic figures. Before Sunak called the election, according to YouGov, 19 per cent of people who voted Conservative in 2019 said they would now vote for Reform. That’s around 2,600,000 voters. Among those who voted Labour, the figured was 2 per cent (around 200,000), and for Lib Dems also 2 per cent (70,000). After Farage announced he would fight Clacton, YouGov’s figures were: 2019 Conservatives: 26 per cent (3,600,000), Labour 1 per cent (100,000), Lib Dems 1 per cent (35,000). Allowing for rounding and sampling error, the apparent fall in the 2019 Labour and Lib Dems figures means little. But the big rise in the defection of 2019 Tory voters is definitely real.

Philip Collins: Farage works as a political figure if he sticks to immigration and Europe. The moment he veers into social policy we start to see how far he diverges from the electorate. That puts a cap on how well he can do. If you are aiming to mobilise 15 per cent of the people you can be straightforward and candid. As soon as you seek to be a candidate for higher office you have to start modulating those arguments. So Farage is certainly hurting the Tories and they will no doubt make the mistake of trying to embrace him. There is no future for them in that direction.

Tim Bale: Obviously, Farage is tempting over to Reform one part of the electoral coalition which gave the Tories their big majority in 2019—namely Leave voters particularly worried about immigration, many of whom are getting on a bit, who left education relatively early and who live in less affluent parts of the country. But he’s a real turn-off for another part of that coalition—namely those who voted Remain and aren’t that bothered about immigration, many of whom are better educated, live in more affluent areas and held their nose to vote Tory for fear of Jeremy Corbyn. The first group—secretly or otherwise—may well agree with Farage’s remarks about Sunak and “culture”. The second may well see it for the dog-whistle it so obviously was. His appeal to disaffected Tories, then, is significant but it’s by no means universal.

Peter Kellner: Tim’s quite right. Reform’s support among Leave voters has risen from 27 to 35 per cent since the election was called; among Remain voters it’s down from 3 to 2 per cent (again, we’d call 3 to 2 statistically no change).

Zoë Grünewald: Philip makes a good point I think. The British public is pretty socially conservative and has often been taken in quite successfully on anti-immigration arguments. But they also tend to be quite statist and most people want adequately funded public services. Farage and Reform stand on a low taxation and minimal state intervention platform. Most voters switching to reform are prioritising immigration so tend not to really care so much about the party’s social and economic position. For lots of them it’s a protest vote. High immigration being the source of their falling living standards and individual security makes sense—it’s a story that’s been told by governments abdicating responsibility for decades. But the reality is that if Reform starts looking more like a prospective opposition it will have to start properly defending their low taxation, high privatisation policies. For lots of voters that sort of stuff won’t actually appeal—and will fall apart pretty quickly. If you’re not willing to rely on the immigrants providing key labour (like health and social care) and paying taxes in the UK, and you’re not willing to increase taxes on British citizens, hardship and poverty will get much worse and their policies won’t add up. I think Reform will be successful in dividing the Tory vote and winding up the British public. But I think there’s no longevity to the party. It’s just another Ukip variation. As for Farage’s comments—clearly dog-whistle.

Tim Bale: Spot on—Farage needs to be careful to remember the second half of the old “Hang the paedos, fund the NHS” meme/mantra.

I guess I’d also add that the more Braverman et al start talking about welcoming “Nigel” into the Tory fold and “uniting the right”, the more those so-called “blue wall” Tories are going to be put off voting Conservative and will move instead to the Lib Dems. She must be aware of this but, like Priti Patel, is presumably putting her nascent leadership campaign ahead of the interests of her colleagues whose seats are more vulnerable to the “yellow peril” than her own.

Matthew Lesh: There are effectively two separate election campaigns. Firstly, there’s a battle about the cost of living (the economy) and the NHS. Secondly, there’s a battle about immigration, which has become a scapegoat, both real and imagined, for Britain’s malaise. Farage has been very good at mopping up Tory voters concerned about immigration; and Labour and in some places the Lib Dems have picked up voters on the the the cost of living and the NHS. The Tories are stuck in the middle, pleasing fewer people, and with a poor track record on all fronts.

Marie Le Conte: It also seems worth remembering that Farage doesn’t really have anything to lose, which is why he can act in the way that he does. He’s not going to get into government anyway; if he fails to win in Clacton, he’ll probably just head to the US to work with the Trump campaign and hanger-ons. It’s hard to talk about what victory would look like for Farage because there’s not really such a thing as a failure for him, which is why British politics seemingly cannot get rid of him. As long as he’s getting attention and broadly shifting the Overton window on issues like immigration, he’s having a good time.

Frances Ryan: I spoke too soon. The BBC has just reported that Ian Gribbin, the Reform candidate in Bexhill and Battle, said the UK should have been neutral against Hitler. He also wrote online that women were the “sponging gender” and should be “deprived of healthcare”. Which seems normal.

Nadine Batchelor-Hunt: I don’t think Reform will do anywhere near as well as some polls are predicting it’ll do simply because most people have never heard of it, and I think the reason Farage is making so much noise is because Reform doesn’t have the funds to run proper campaigns in every seat so he’s having to attention seek—it’s his only option. I think the party’s primary voter base is disillusioned Tory voters and people who weren’t planning on voting at all. In my view, Reform is essentially an immigration pressure group with a celebrity attached to it (Nigel Farage). I do think Farage went too far with his criticism of Rishi Sunak, and as a person of colour it made me feel uncomfortable.

Philip Collins: I entirely agree on Farage going too far. I think he was invoking Sunak’s Indian heritage with his claim that the PM lacks patriotism. It’s nasty and it’s not true. There is a great deal for which Sunak should be criticised but not who he is.