If current polling is believed, the relatively ignored Reform UK political party is not gaining much traction amongst British voters. recently published polling on public opinion towards political parties. Thirty-seven percent of respondents had a ‘favorable’ idea towards Labour, twenty percent had a ‘favorable’ vision of the Conservatives, and just thirteen percent had a ‘favorable’ view of Reform UK.
However, fifty-two percent of respondents had an ‘unfavorable’ opinion towards the Conservatives compared to thirty-eight percent towards Reform UK. Moreover, almost half of the respondents selected ‘unsure’ as an option for Reform UK. Those polled had more concretely formed opinions towards the two main parties. Does this mean that, if Reform UK were to implement a coherent, intelligent, and effective election strategy, they could win over many voters currently disillusioned with Labour and the Conservatives in a similar fashion undertaken by the United Kingdom Independence Party in 2015?
The forthcoming local elections on Thursday, 4 May 2023 may be the first step in Reform UK’s attempt to cultivate a voter base and media presence before the 2024 General Election. As The reported earlier this year, the party has already demanded more airtime on television leading up to the May local elections due to their gradually rising polling numbers. This is important as executives consider polling numbers and how many candidates parties field when determining airtime for party election broadcasts. The party’s leader, Richard Tice, declared that Reform UK would stand nearly five hundred candidates at the upcoming local elections. If Reform UK desire greater public awareness, they will need to make use of the minimal television airtime parties are allotted.
Reform UK is a relatively recent incarnation. The party rebranded itself in 2021, changing its name from the Brexit Party after Britain left the European Union in early 2020. The Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, advocated for a hard Brexit after the chaotic fallout and stagnant parliamentary process under Theresa May’s premiership. The party did remarkably well at the 2019 European Elections, becoming the most significant single party in the European Parliament with 29 MEPs. This election was, however, a stupid one, as Britain had already decided to leave the European Union three years before the vote. It was, therefore, predominantly a protest vote by disgruntled Brexiteers, disillusioned by how the UK government managed the process. Nevertheless, it was an impressive feat for a party formed just six months before polling day.
Reform UK is a right-wing populist party attempting to establish its future electoral ambitions in the ‘industrial heartlands’ in the midlands and northern England, as well as pro-Brexit communities. Their policies try to entice those voters dissatisfied with the status quo, including those angry with the management of Brexit and the direction the Conservatives are taking. Indeed, this is recognized within Tory circles. One Conservative MP remarked that ‘if people are fed up and feel like we aren’t enacting Conservative policies, then Reform is the obvious answer.’ This MP is likely referring to the tax rises implemented by both Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt in recent years, alongside the lack of cultural and social conservatism some pockets of the Tory party advocate. Moreover, the failure to stop small boats crossing the English Channel is another glaring issue for the government. Reform UK argues that Brexit has been entirely mismanaged, with immigration remaining out of control.
Many of Reform’s policies are overwhelmingly popular amongst British voters. The party argues that taxes must be reduced for the less well-off, advocating an increase in the threshold before citizens pay income tax from £12,500 to £20,000 a year. This would incontrovertibly benefit six million of the lowest-paid earners in Britain in a cost-of-living crisis. Richard Tice has also argued that Britons are worse off after thirteen years of Tory rule, citing that the streets are unsafe and it is difficult to get an ambulance or see a doctor. For very many Britons, this is a concerning reality. The party’s focus on council mismanagement of funds at the upcoming local elections will also be popular as many local authorities have opted to raise council tax by almost five percent while cutting back on the quality and frequency of council-funded public and community services.
Despite Reform UK’s limited electoral impact, the party is ‘worrying’ some Conservative MPs. One of the reasons for this may be due to Richard Tice’s ‘cast-iron guarantee’ that his party will field candidates against every Conservative MP at the next general election. This should be a worrying prospect for the Conservatives. Reform UK’s predecessor, the Brexit Party, voluntarily stood down all candidates in Conservative-held seats in the 2019 General Election due to Boris Johnson’s commitment to a hard Brexit. This prevented the possibility of the right vote being split, arguably contributing to the Conservatives’ most robust performance at a general election since Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1987. The iron lady was similarly well known for uniting the right-of-center voting base during her time as Prime Minister.
The ‘traditional conservative message’ Reform UK are attempting to project may have some ideological similarities with Liz Truss’ project. Richard Tice explained that ‘the day Liz Truss got ousted, party membership exploded.’ This may have something to do with the ex-Prime Minister’s low tax, deregulated economic ideology alongside a more traditional socio-cultural ideological program that Tice believes should be at the heart of true conservatism.
Reform UK is aiming to entice those Red Wall voters that lent their vote to Boris Johnson and the Conservatives in 2019 as a result of his commitment to a hard Brexit and ‘leveling up’ ex-industrial heartlands but are not entirely convinced that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is the answer to their problems. The fact that Richard Tice plans to stand in Hartlepool – a seat held by Labour since its creation in the 1970s until the Conservatives won a by-election in 2021 – is indicative of the party’s general election strategy. They are also attempting to swing those who are disillusioned with the direction the Conservative Party are taking, depicting them as economically incompetent, tax-hiking, immigration-loving, and destroyers of the traditional social and cultural values of Britain.
The current relative ideological convergence between the Labour and Conservative parties could lead to a party like Reform UK collecting a significant minority of disgruntled voters. This is precisely what happened in 2015 when UKIP gained around four million votes in the 2015 General Election and played an important role in forcing David Cameron to call a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. Indeed, They are, however without a charismatic and publicly recognizable leader that was so successful for UKIP in the first half of the 2010s. Nevertheless, if Reform UK’s popularity continues to grow, insiders believe Nigel Farage could make one final attempt at winning a parliamentary seat – eighth time lucky?
It is doubtful that Reform UK will win a single parliamentary seat at the next general election. The party has yet to cultivate a solid public image, and the first-past-the-post electoral system will protect the traditional parties. Even with an effective campaigning strategy, it seems all that Reform UK will achieve is a split in the right-of-center vote, facilitating an even more enormous Labour landslide at the next general election. One should expect an uptick in polls for Reform UK, with Sir John Curtice pointing out that ‘leave voting Tories are among the most volatile of the Conservative base.’
However, Richard Tice believes his party is already making a significant political impact, changing the direction of Conservative policy on the asylum question and probing their electoral strategy. plea to the Conservatives to ‘fight for the party and not be tempted by a Reform UK vote’ as an indication his party was making successful inroads in offering voters an alternative to the Conservative Party at the ballot box.
Reform UK is gradually being picked up on the Conservative’s political radar. Although the party is not in a political position to make a similar electoral earthquake as UKIP did in 2015, they might play a vital part in facilitating the Tories’ worst general election result in decades.
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