General Election 2024

Reform’s success is a test for Britain’s media

The examples of Trump and Netanyahu show the dangers of giving oxygen, without challenge, to divisive populists

July 05, 2024
Reform UK leader Nigel Farage speaking at an event at the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool, during the 2024 general election. Contributor: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Reform UK leader Nigel Farage speaking at an event at the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool, during the 2024 general election. Contributor: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Labour’s landslide is real. For those voters who wanted to see such change, the scale of the success is almost too good to believe. Maybe, if we pinch ourselves, we will wake up in a country where the government is still mostly focussed on shipping asylum seekers off to Rwanda.

But no, the landslide is real—at the time of writing, 412 seats, with two seats to go. And yet the mood on this grey day seems far from jubilant, as if Keir Starmer’s success were less than it is. It seems unfair, mostly, to pick at the win. Yes, Labour’s vote-share has dropped since 2019. Yes, the mismatch between seats and the popular vote points to the iniquities of the first past the post system. Yes, the lack of enthusiasm for Labour means many voters don’t feel the joy that, surely, should accompany such decisive victory. Yes, fewer seats are now “safe”, indicating more uncertainty come the next election. 

None of these facts should detract from what is an undeniable victory; the problems they highlight can wait. But one development that leaves a bitter taste and shouldn’t be ignored is the success of Reform UK at the polls. Though this morning’s result was lower than the surprising prediction of 13 seats in last night’s exit poll, Reform now has four MPs. Nigel Farage is the representative for Clacton, after his eighth attempt at election to public office. Reform’s chair, Richard Tice, won in Boston and Skegness; former Labour councillor and then Tory MP Lee Anderson has been re-elected on a Reform ticket in Ashfield; and Rupert Lowe has won Great Yarmouth from the Conservatives. Success was broader, though: the party came second in no fewer than 98 seats.

Reform’s christening as a political force in the House of Commons will test the resilience of our democratic safeguards. In parliament, through the drudgery of hours-long debates and committee hearings, the party’s right-wing populism may well be exposed for the shallow and toxic thinking that it is.  

Throughout the election campaign—from announcing he would be helping Donald Trump win in the US rather than entering the fray here, to his announcement that, no, he would be running after all—Nigel Farage has been granted the media attention he craves. As he enters parliament, the test of the British media will be how well the honourable member for Clacton is scrutinised. Can we withstand the temptation of reacting, of sharing, of gasping with indignation, of platforming with snark but without question? With the Liberal Democrats on a record number of seats, and the Greens equalling Reform, Farage and his colleagues should receive the attention that a small party deserves.

We know from elsewhere, and from history, what happens when a populist, one who holds the rules and standards of politics in low regard, is given the space to vandalise it. In the US, in Israel, leaders such as Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu (who, as Israelis will tell you, perfected this art long ago) have rehearsed this playbook. They have shown how a player who utterly disregards the rules can lay ruin to political discourse. Of course, Trump is a more powerful figure than this newest addition on the back benches. His platform, surely, must be far smaller. 

Last night, at 12.08am, Farage tweeted a video. With two results in, he said, Reform was on 30 per cent of the vote, “Way more than any possible prediction or projection.” The Trumpian echoes were loud. Reform were on track to win “many, many seats.” But, Farage said with a grin, turquoise rosette on his navy blazer, “mainstream media are in denial just as much as our political parties”. To his accusation that there were no Reform representatives on any of the main channels, various social media users responded with examples of the names of Reform members who had appeared on mainstream channels. Utterly shameless, his post was captioned: “The revolt against the establishment is underway.”

Only two hours after the exit polls, Clacton’s new MP was already giving us a flavour of what we can expect from him in this parliament: appeals to division, a piercing of our certainty about what we is real, or not. The press must scrutinise Reform’s four MPs, and not just give them oxygen or, as has happened in US and Israeli media, allow them to set the terms of debate. The health of our democracy depends on it, whether Reform survives in the long-term or whether, as some rumours suggest, Farage wants to take over the Conservatives, and one day, win an election himself. Across the Atlantic and across the Mediterranean, we can see how vulnerable liberal democracy is, in the hands of those who would break it.