General Election 2024

Election panel: What has the “contract for the people” revealed about Reform?

Our panel of experts on the substance of Nigel Farage's election manifesto 

June 18, 2024
Nigel Farage at the Reform party's election manifesto launch at the Gurnos Club in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. Image: Mark Hawkins / Alamy.
Nigel Farage at the Reform party's election manifesto launch at the Gurnos Club in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. Image: Mark Hawkins / Alamy.

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. Yesterday, we asked our panellists where the Euros could have any impact on the election. Today we ask them about the Reform manifesto, also known as the party’s “contract with the people”.

Alona Ferber: Reform and Nigel Farage have received a huge amount of press attention since this election campaign began. Yesterday, Reform launched its “contract with the people”, again with lots of coverage. But what of the actual substance of the contract. Are Reform’s pledges feasible and costed? And what more do we understand about where Reform is on the British political map now that the party’s election pledges are out?

Moya Lothian-McLean: I'm more interested in this “contract”, which is the logical endpoint of decades of politicians reframing how people interact with politics, according to economic ideology e.g. neoliberalism. It’s all about pledges and “delivery” and “oven ready deals. No longer a social contract but a straight up business one! From “public works to “infrastructure. Language matters and is telling. This is also one of the sites where political differences will come into play, because for others this is not a negative development the way I view it as!

Frances Ryan: Reform’s manifesto is unsurprisingly filled with nonsensical stats and false promises: notably a claim they can deliver savings and additional growth of £160bn per year, with no word on how; a customary claim that man-made climate change is nothing to worry about; and tax cuts and additional spending worth £141bn a year that make Liz Truss look prudent. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies put it, “the sums in this manifesto do not add up.” 

But, of course, none of this actually matters. Just like with Brexit, Farage is selling easy answers to voters struggling with very real problems. That Starmer’s Labour has failed to offer hope has only left them more vulnerable to a snake oil salesman in a Barbour jacket.

Tim Bale: Reform’s pledges a) aren’t anything of the sort because Farage knows they’ll never be charged with implementing them and b) don’t come anywhere near adding up in any conventional sense. But they don’t need to because his whole “contract” schtick is simply a heat-seeking missile aimed at a particular group of voters who he figures—probably rightly—will lap them up regardless because they chime with, and offer simple solutions for, their oft-voiced concerns and (in many cases wholly understandable) frustrations. Inasmuch as they show us anything, they merely confirm what we know already—namely that Reform UK is a populist radical right party whose signature platform, like that of many of its European counterparts, is anti-immigration, anti-woke, anti-net zero, with a touch (and often more than a touch) of Islamophobia and xenophobia thrown in for good measure.

 Philip Collins: Farage is not yet in politics. He remains the leader of a campaign group so he is untroubled by the compromises demanded of serious candidates for office. His manifesto is a nonsense but he doesn’t care. He probably knows himself that it doesn’t add up. But he doesn’t need to add up like the others do. His definition comes from not being the others, rather than being himself. This would change if he were ever to get closer to his stated ambition of being PM. As a late comer to the new trade of politics he would find it uncongenial.

Nadine Batchelor-Hunt: Reform are behaving more like a pressure group to drag the Tories to the right than a serious political party. And, realistically, that’s all they can hope to achieve.

Zoe Grunewald: This is exactly it. It’s just red meat. They know they aren’t governing so they can just say whatever they want to appeal to those voters without any real scrutiny over their costings. So much of it is based on ideological nonsense—like Frances⁩ said re their climate change statements—so of course, if you believe their worldview, growth is just a matter of stopping immigration, burning fossil fuels and lowering taxes. It’s not rooted in real politics, real governance or real life, but that’s not the point. It’s just meant to evoke outrage, appeal to a group a voters who want any excuse to flee the Conservatives and push those remaining Tory MPs rightwards.

Peter Hitchens: The use of the word “contract” is surely a copy of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America. There’s a string American influence in Reform UK, just as its name is taken from Preston Manning’s Canadian party which helped to slaughter the Ottawa Tories. As with the Greens, the policies themselves are unimportant, not to be taken seriously.They are just an easy way of saying to potential supporters “We’re like you”. As this election is increasingly about whether the Tories survive at all, I think Farage should be questioned far more on how he can hope to replace the Tories if parliament is dominated by a vast Starmer majority and the Lib Dems are the official opposition. In our two-party system , it’s very possible that on 5th July there’ll be no such vacancy to fill. The Tories might be finished without proportional representation, and I don’t think Starmer has any plans for that. The successes of the AfD, Marine Le  Pen and Giorgia Meloni are not available to Farage. In the circumstances of 2024, He has the power to destroy, but not create.

 Frances Ryan: I saw a poll yesterday that said that out of all the party leaders, Farage is seen as the one who most “tells it like it is”. This might be a case of “laugh or you’d cry” but it does say something—probably depressing—about British politics that the man responsible for the most catastrophically deceitful campaign in modern election history is credited as some sort of truth teller. In reality, of course, if Farage handed you a contract, it wouldn’t be worth the paper it was printed on.

Peter Kellner: We seem to be in violent agreement! The reason for publishing such a nonsense “contract” is clear if we imagine the counterfactual: how we would have reacted had the Reform manifesto been rational, realistic and carefully costed. We would have ignored it. Reform's nonsense serves the same function as Ed Davey's photogenic stunts: to attract attention to parties that have no chance of being in government.

May I suggest a follow-up question: how would each of us vote if we lived in Clacton? Personally, for the first time in my life, I would vote Conservative, as the best chance of keeping Farage out of parliament.

 Philip Collins: So would I. The nation actually needs a serious and viable Conservative party precisely as a way of containing the likes of Farage. 

 Frances Ryan: I’d try my best to give the Tories a tactical vote but I worry I’d come out in hives.

Zoe Grunewald: How much of Farage’s appeal rests on his being an outsider? Would him becoming an MP neutralise him? He would no longer be the anti-establishment populist voice. He’d become one of them, a voiceless part of the fray. George Galloway has gone rather quiet since entering parliament. Even the anti-establishment parliamentarians have to work with other MPs to get work done, and they get distracted from their populist agenda as they actually have to do constituency and parliamentary work. In some ways, conversely, could it actually temper Farage? Or maybe that's wishful thinking.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Tomorrow, our panel will be back to answer yet more burning questions about the general election. Got something to ask our experts? Submit your questions!