Tuesday 20 February 2024

Why Reform Is Rubbish

In the kind of outlet that Reform UK needs to convince, Tom Jones writes:

What characterises great generals? For all the ink that has been spilled on it, it can be reduced down to an ability to meet their ends by perfectly balancing the three levels of command; strategic, operational and tactical. As Sun Tzu wrote, “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Montrose’s gift for wild ventures, Wellington’s sit back and at ‘em style or Guderian’s pioneering of close cooperation between mechanised forces; these generals had ‘that high gift in war which can adapt its means not only to its ends but to its material.’

In politics as in war, good leadership requires more than just knowing what your big goal is; it’s knowing how to achieve it with what you have. If these are the qualities of leadership, then the Reform Party is being led by donkeys.

Reform finished third in both by-elections last week, with 13 per cent of the vote in Wellingborough and 10% in Kingswood. Party leader Richard Tice called this pair of distant thirds a “defining moment”, which proved the party was now a “significant force”.

Political leaders are students of the school of self-aggrandisement practised by Napoleon rather than the self-deprecation of Wellington, but Tice’s claim rivals even the most audacious of Caesar’s reports from Gaul. The reality is that the by-election results suggest 10 per cent is about Reform’s ceiling, and the realities of running a General Election campaign — the party will not be able to field 650 candidates of as high a quality as Deputy Leader Ben Habib in Wellingborough, and those candidates will be operating in a data desert and with little by way of ground game — suggests they will poll less than that.

As I have written before in these most august pages, given that we stand on the cusp of the most historic collapse in Conservative support in history, Reform’s performance is something to marvel at:

A historic collapse in the Conservative vote, mass disillusionment with establishment politics — it’s difficult to think of more favourable conditions for alternative right-wing parties. How, then, do they stand to capitalise on it all?

The answer is almost laughable: Reform’s national polling numbers haven’t yet broken into double figures, and its plan to stand in every constituency is expected to win exactly zero seats.

This is particularly poor when you consider the means at their disposal; Reform are reported to have received “more than £10 million pounds in donations over the past four years.” Since their most prominent members are well-known in public life or in the media, their advocates have a great reach across the right-wing media landscape; some make regular appearances (or, as Tice does, host their own show) on GB News and Talk TV.

The door to a new, insurgent, populist right-wing party is not so much open as blown open. In a launch article for his new Reform-centric series on Conservative Home, Matt Goodwin — who has just undertaken the largest and most comprehensive survey of Reform UK voters to date — believes Reform “has not yet fulfilled its electoral potential.” He believes that by capitalising on the trends driving European populism, namely distrust, fears about the actual or perceived destruction of their national community, identity, and ways of life, relative deprivation and political dealignment, the party could reach over 15 per cent — “more than enough” as he puts it, “to not just bury Rishi Sunak’s hopes at the next election but also, potentially, set the stage for something even bigger to follow.”

But, despite the ample material to hand, Reform are unlikely to ever replicate the success of European populists, or provide a successful alternative to the Conservatives. The path of least resistance means we are more likely to see more self-defeating absurdity than a Canada-style right-replacement.

A right-wing replacement is, first and foremost, hampered by the electoral system. Whilst most European nations use some form of proportional representation, the UK’s FPTP electoral system means the “broad church” approach of the Conservatives allows the party to absorb multiple strains — the vast majority, in fact — of British right-wing thought, whilst also being able to poach votes from the centre by building a moderate, centre-right electoral platform.

But the truth is that Reform itself is the problem. It is an entirely autocratic organisation that is structured more like a company than a political party. The party is entirely under the direction of its leadership. As a result, the party has no feedback loop to voters; despite Reform’s protests at the disconnect of politics from ordinary people it is — perhaps even more than mainstream parties — ensconced entirely within the Westminster bubble.

Tice isn’t blessed with the natural understanding of his electorate that his predecessor, Nigel Farage was; nor with the charisma required to lead a breakthrough movement. Primarily an economic liberal, Tice is offering an ideologically confusing and unappealing platform of reheated Thatcherite economics with mindlessly rehashed, unconnected talking points that have little public salience —the WEF, “common sense coal”, taxing working from home, the “woke brigade in California” — to an electorate that as, Matt Goodwin identified, is more motivated by distrust, fears about the actual or perceived destruction of their national community, identity, and ways of life, relative deprivation and political dealignment.

Tice’s problem is that he doesn’t share or understand the values and concerns of his potential voters and, thanks to the party’s structure, has no feedback loop to correct him. As I have written before, that leaves Reform bereft of any actual understanding of their voters and cast adrift in a sea of irrelevance, basing their campaigns negative caricatures drawn by establishment and left-wing commentators in the immediate aftermath of 2016, which painted Brexiteers — and especially white, working-class, formerly Labour-voting Brexiteers — as fuelled merely by ressentiment, a deeply jejune and superficial understanding of the complex drivers behind the long-term shift in voting patterns.

For conservatives — genuine conservatives — looking to “Take Back Control” in the post-power political shakedown, the Conservative Party has its problems; the church is so broad as to represent almost anyone, it produces poor candidates and it has a fealty to big business donors. Added to that, as Dominic Sandbrook points out, “the party of Disraeli, Baldwin, Churchill and Macmillan has veered from one extreme to another, with a culture of factionalism, greed, ambition and self-interest to rival anything at the court of the Borgias.”

But Reform’s structure means that the Conservative Party will remain the most effective weapon for conservative political action — even if it remains a deeply imperfect one. If it can be made right, it can be made to fight.