Farage: losing the battle to win the war

Prof Pippa Norris

Paul Macguire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University and founding director of the Electoral Integrity Project. An international expert on comparative elections and public opinion, recent books include ‘Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism’ (with Inglehart, CUP 2019) and ‘Electoral Integrity in America’ (edited, OUP 2019).

Email: Pippa_Norris@hks.harvard.edu

Section 4: Parties and the Campaign

Apart from reaction to Nigel Farage’s brief BBC interview with Andrew Neil on election night, the Brexit party have seemingly been consigned to become a footnote of modern history and the occasional doctoral thesis. After all, they ended with a paltry 2.0% of the UK vote (5% in the seats they contested) and no MPs. UKIP performed even worse, with 22,817 votes (0.1%). Robert Ford, for example, was typical when he remarked that the Brexit party proved an ‘electoral flop’, with the main effect of their efforts likely to have saved several Labour incumbents by ‘splitting the Leave vote’.

But is this a correct assessment of Nigel Farage’s legacy? Arguably, despite being wiped out electorally in this contest, Farage’s role has been one of kingmaker in terms of both the predominance of the Brexit policy agenda and the Conservative parliamentary victory in the 2019 General Election. As Giovanni’s Sartori observed decades ago, minor parties can still serve a critical function through their ‘blackmail’ potential, even if they fail to win seats or ministerial office. The impact of Nigel Farage was both direct (as discussed in my other contribution to this collection), and indirect, on the policy agenda.

The entrance of UKIP and then the Brexit party shaped British politics in a profound way indirectly, by mobilizing authoritarian-populist forces and thereby polarizing the country and the policy agenda around the issue of Brexit. Farage tapped into long-term shifts in partisan dealignment and generational shifts in cultural values, which had loosened the salience of the traditional Left-Right economic cleavage and the politics of class, as argued in Cultural Backlash – but also their interaction with supply-side factors, including strategic decisions by leaders over Downsian party competition, within a broader context of the opportunities for exerting power and influence within the Westminster electoral system. Mainstream parties on the center-right and center-left can respond to new rivals by strategic attempts at either exclusion (treating their new rivals as pariahs) or else inclusion (by parroting their competitor’s rhetoric and issues positions). Ever since Anthony Downs, the consequences of these strategies have been widely debated in terms of both their electoral effects and their impact on the policy agenda. Farage has obviously failed at gaining office at Westminster – but he has had a profound effect on the policy agenda by forcing other UK parties adapt their policy position towards Europe.

Cases vary, but in many countries, new authoritarian-populist parties have become accepted as legitimate and democratic partners with a seat at the table, thereby directly influencing the issue agenda in parliament and the composition of coalition governments. In Norway, for instance, Siv Jensen’s anti-immigrant Progress Party entered ministerial limos as part of successive center-right coalition governments. In this context, mainstream parties have often sought to parrot or adopt the key issues of minor parties, notably by adopting the populist language and more restrictive immigration policies championed by authoritarian-populist, and governing coalitions have stolen key planks from their platforms in election campaigns.

Elsewhere, however, exclusion from entry to governing coalitions is often common. In Germany, for example, the Christian Democratic Union party refused to collude with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), despite their becoming the third largest party in the Bundestag in 2017, in an attempt to erect a cordon sanitaire. In the Netherlands, as well, Mark Rutte’s 2017 governing coalition excluded Gert Wilder’s Party for Freedom (PVV), in the attempt to deny them credibility and respectability. In extreme cases, some authoritarian-populist parties have been banned by law, for example the racist Flemish Vlaams Blok, or otherwise legally restricted from funding or ballot access.

Even where treated as ‘pariahs’, however, minor rivals can still impact the policy agenda indirectly, by forcing the mainstream parties to adjust their stances in response to new concerns, in this case by parroting issues of nationalism and immigration. Johnson’s unprincipled ambitions, and the machinations of the ERG group, made the Conservative party ripe for a hostile tack-over by populist forces. In this regard, both major parties have absorbed the cancer of Euroscepticism, mobilized by Farage and the ERG Conservatives, and injected this into the mainstream of the body politic.

Therefore, the Brexit Party should go down in the history books as a project which proved an electoral failure at Westminster, losing the general election battle. But in the long-term, Farage played a decisive indirect role by boosting the size of the Conservative’s electoral victory, fueling the politics of Brexit and thus influencing the UK’s withdrawal from EU membership, strengthening the polarization of UK party competition around cultural cleavages dividing nationalists and cosmopolitans, and even potentially heightening existential threats to the future of the United Kingdom as an independent nation-state.