The Brexit Party: Creature of the Void
13 May 2019
The Brexit Party is perhaps the only force standing in the way of a Remainer establishment intent on thwarting the majority decision to leave the European Union. But in the longer term, a populist party is not the answer to our political woes.
Just a month ago, Nigel Farage returned to the British political stage, launching The Brexit Party (TBP) to contest the European Parliament elections. TBP has since acquired 85,000 registered supporters, netting over £1m in donations. In the European Parliament elections, it is polling as high as 34 percent – more than the Conservatives and Labour combined – while for Westminster, TBP is placed third on 21 percent, just behind the Tories.
TBP’s explosive emergence is symptomatic of the crisis of British representative politics. It exists only because the mainstream political parties have failed to close the void between themselves and the electorate that was exposed by the EU referendum. By threatening the established parties, it now provides the only meaningful counterweight to a Remain establishment intent on neutralising or cancelling Brexit. However, its severe political limitations will prevent it playing any more meaningful role in resolving the crisis of representation and transforming British society.
Creature of the Void
TBP is a populist party in the purest possible sense. It seeks to rally the amorphous mass of “the British people” against an equally homogenised “political class” or “elite” which has systematically ignored them and now threatens democracy itself. Unlike more developed populist parties, it has not (yet) coupled this mobilisation with any substantive policy platform – though it will presumably have to do so if, as Farage threatens, it contests a general election (see below).
Ironically, those now most loudly condemning TBP are those most responsible for its existence. Populism flourishes in the void created when political representatives fail to adequately represent the citizenry. This void can emerge in any society, but it has been widened and entrenched through European integration, which has locked in neoliberal policy sets, creating a fixed elite “consensus” resistant to electoral pressure, relocated policymaking from parliaments to secretive inter-governmental negotiations, and led national political elites to draw inspiration and legitimacy more from one another than from those they claim to represent (see Analysis #1 - The EU's Democratic Deficit: Why Brexit is Essential for Restoring Popular Sovereignty). As argued consistently on The Full Brexit, the crisis of representation thereby generated explains both the referendum outcome, and why it has been so difficult for the political establishment to accept and implement (see Analysis #9 - Why is Brexit Proving so Hard to Implement?; Analysis #18 - British Politics in Chaos: Brexit and the Crisis of Representative Democracy).
The major political parties had a golden opportunity to resolve this crisis after the referendum by accepting instruction of those they represent and working to close the gap between themselves and the voters. Superficially, Labour and the Conservatives appeared to do this in the 2017 general election by pledging to respect the referendum result. Their vote soared, reversing a lengthy drift away from the two-party system; the then populist challenger, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), saw its vote collapse.
Since then, however, the overwhelmingly Remainer political elite has returned to form, and the void reopened with a vengeance. The Conservative government negotiated a widely-reviled “Brexit in name only” (see our Withdrawal Agreement section), while the Labour Party’s childish fence-sitting incubated a de facto Remain position (see Analysis #17 - Labour Stands Exposed on Brexit). MPs’ increasingly ludicrous antics as the Brexit date loomed showed the electorate that they would do practically anything to avoid implementing the referendum result (see Analysis #18 - British Politics in Chaos).
TBP only exists because of this refusal by the political elite to be disciplined by the democratic decision of June 2016.
TBP’s Role in the Crisis of Democracy
TBP’s current exclusive focus on democracy and Brexit is appropriate because the principal question facing Britain today is whether we still inhabit a democratic polity. Following the two delays to Brexit, the Remain establishment clearly felt the wind in its sails, manoeuvring to soften Brexit even further and ideally negate it altogether through a second referendum. If they succeed, this would be disastrous for British democracy (see Analysis #18 - British Politics in Chaos; Analysis #20 - Parliament at the Cliff-Edge: Why a Second Referendum Could Destroy its Authority). They will have shown that no decision by the electorate can ever be considered truly binding upon them, because they can simply frustrate any instruction that they dislike, whether by mendacity or sheer incompetence, and then insist that voters must change their mind. What many citizens have long suspected – that it hardly matters how or even whether you vote – would be confirmed beyond doubt. If this happened, many people would withdraw into despair, resignation and depoliticisation. Their resentment about their political and economic marginalisation would fester dangerously. This would be a breeding ground for populism, with UKIP – now firmly a far-right entity – best placed to exploit the situation.
TBP’s emergence prevents these disastrous outcomes, at least temporarily, by providing a credible outlet for voters to remain engaged and express their anger at the political establishment. By focusing exclusively on democracy, it provides an important channel for the many millions of voters who could never support the far-right policies that UKIP has fully embraced since 2016. This is why TBP is picking up support from disillusioned Conservative and UKIP supporters, but also from longstanding Labour Party voters.
It is deeply lamentable that this crucial channel for political expression is being supplied by a party led by Nigel Farage. However, the explanation for this lies not with Farage’s unique talents, or the supposed far-right proclivities of millions of British citizens, as many now claim. Farage is only able to claim leadership of a pro-democracy movement because the left has utterly failed to do so. Despite admitting the EU’s many faults and being unable to mount a positive case for it, the left bottled the referendum, clinging to a discredited neoliberal edifice. The opportunity subsequently to return to its foundational principle of democracy and lead Brexit in a progressive direction has been squandered. Most so-called leftists have merely doubled down on their ludicrous insistence that only racists and fascists can oppose the EU. TBP ought to be a left-wing party. By failing to reclaim the banner of democracy from the Eurosceptic right, the left has created the opportunity for Farage to return.
The Limitations of TBP
Despite its important short-term contribution, however, in the longer term, it is doubtful whether TBP can help resolve the problems of British political life. While the most obvious limitations stem from its leadership, the deeper problems lie in the populist form of political organisation itself.
The most immediately troubling aspect of TBP is obviously its leadership by Nigel Farage. There is no doubt that his return to British political life is a cause for enormous regret. Farage is a self-serving, unprincipled opportunist with a longstanding record of deeply unpleasant, right-wing positions. As UKIP leader, he specialised in whipping up anti-immigration, xenophobic sentiment, which was given full rein in his Leave.EU campaign in 2016. The association this created between Brexit and racism is an important reason why many Remain voters still struggle to reconcile themselves to the referendum result. His swift disappearance from public life after the referendum – fatuously declaring “independence day” then swanning off to the United States to pursue a lucrative media career – also demonstrated his deep lack of seriousness. Like the Tory Brexiteers, he could not be bothered to provide the leadership required to see Brexit through, lazily abdicating responsibility to a Remainer establishment, then expressing dismay when the result was not to his liking.
Nonetheless, it is important to put Farage’s return into perspective and understand what it does and does not signify. Most importantly, it does not indicate the sudden conversion of a third of the British public to far-right politics. If there was nothing more at work here than far-right reaction, TBP would not be needed: people could simply turn to the ready-made option of UKIP. Yet they have not. Since the referendum, UKIP’s fortunes have withered as it has lurched to the far right. Although its support revived slightly as Brexit was postponed, it never exceeded nine percent for Westminster and 17 percent for the European elections, and this quickly collapsed to just four percent for both. This clearly demonstrates that UKIP is attractive to very few voters, and that many more prefer TBP. This suggests that Farage appeals to voters not because of his far-right positions on immigration or anything else, but because he articulates their grievances against an undemocratic political establishment. Furthermore, TBP’s left-wing candidates have publicly declared that they would instantly denounce any right-wing statements, risking the party’s internal unity. Accordingly, even if Farage’s personal sympathies remain right-wing, he cannot express these without immediately damaging his cause. He seems to understand this perfectly well, studiously avoiding discussion of immigration – indeed, of any detailed policy position. Accordingly, whatever Nigel Farage may or may not be, TBP is simply not a “far-right” party. It has only one policy, to defend democracy and uphold the referendum result, and there is no reasonable way to define this policy as “far-right”.
Nonetheless, this single-issue focus points to the deeper limitations of TBP as a populist political party. At present, TBP makes a demand for democracy, but says nothing about how democratic control should be used beyond “implementing Brexit” – defined here as “no deal”. Invoking democracy as an abstract principle may broaden the party’s electoral appeal in the short term. However, in the longer term it only cedes practical leadership to those willing to specify substantive policies. This is how the populist demand to “take back control” was subverted into “Brexit in name only” in the first place.
Moreover, TBP’s reluctance to specify clear policies signals the limits of populism in resolving the crisis of representation in British politics. A party’s function is to aggregate societal interests into a clear policy platform, a manifesto, providing a choice for voters and a benchmark against which voters can hold politicians to account. Farage’s refusal to issue a manifesto – indeed, his pledge to “never, ever use the word manifesto” because “manifesto equals lie” – highlights the deeply anti-political nature of populism as a form of political mobilisation. Here, TBP is the mirror image of Change UK, which also refuses to issue a manifesto, claiming that this is a new way of doing politics. Change UK’s slogan, “Politics is broken – let’s change it”, is the analogue of TBP’s “change politics for good”. But what this change amounts to is an attack on representative politics itself. If manifestoes are nothing but “lies”, against what standard are voters ever to judge their elected representatives? Unencumbered by any clear set of policies and promises, populist leaders can act according to their personal whims.
To become anything more than a single-issue protest party, TBP would need to develop a more substantive policy platform, but this would be highly likely to intensify the party’s internal contradictions, and push TBP further to the right. Like its singular appeal to democracy, TBP’s ability to field candidates from the left, right and centre is a short-term strength, maximising its electoral appeal. However, it is also a long-term difficulty, because it is not clear that the party’s founding cadre share anything beyond their common concern for democracy. The more the party seeks to develop a concrete platform, the more these divisions will expose themselves.
The party’s internal character, moreover, makes it highly unlikely that leftist forces can triumph in a struggle to define what TBP stands for. First, as noted earlier, the left is mostly conspicuous by its absence. There are some noted far-left figures standing, but the bulk of the candidates are essentially petit-bourgeois types and middle-of-the-road professionals. Second, the money and organisational heft at the centre of what has so far undoubtedly been a slick, professional campaign are unlikely to be converted to progressive causes. Third, and most importantly, TBP completely lacks any internal democratic structures. The party’s 85,000 registered supporters are not party members; they have no say over how the party is run. This is a deliberate design by Nigel Farage, based on his experiences battling UKIP’s internal factions, which he blames for being unable to professionalise the party. Although TBP is brand new, and arguably its institutional structures, like its policies, are potentially up for grabs through internal struggle, it is unlikely that Farage, or party chairman and business magnate Richard Tice, will gladly relinquish their domination. If not, then they will remain the ultimate arbiters of any struggles over the party’s future. The lack of internal democracy is not only a glaring contradiction for a party claiming to stand for democracy; it also compounds the lack of accountability associated with an absent manifesto. For all of these reasons, it is most likely that TBP will develop as a populist party of the centre-right, or what Eaton and Goodwin call a “national populist” party. Ironically, and regrettably, this would deepen the convergence between British and continental European politics.
How, then, should the left relate to The Brexit Party? First, with a sense of shame. The left should be deeply embarrassed that its own failure to champion democracy has created an opportunity for the opportunist chancer Nigel Farage to return to British politics. Second, with a sense of humility and appreciation for the important role TBP is playing in the immediate crisis of British politics. At stake today is whether Britain is a meaningful democracy or not. With the exception of small, apparently non-viable entities like the Social Democratic Party, no other party has addressed itself adequately to this crisis. If it did not exist, the Remainer establishment would see no reason not to press home their advantage in the wake of the postponement of Brexit by pushing for a second referendum or even the revocation of Article 50. Moreover, TBP is providing voters with an alternative to resignation, depoliticisation and/ or a turn to the far-right, and its candidates – all of whom seem decent, principled individuals – are braving considerable personal cost to do this. Third, with a sense of proportion and decency. Even if one despises Nigel Farage, and cannot bring oneself to support TBP, to brand the party, its candidates or supporters as “far right” is simply wrong, factually and morally. At present, TBP stands exclusively for the enactment of a democratic majority decision – no more, no less. To call this “far right” is hysterical, immoral, and deeply insulting to many millions of people. It distracts attention from the true source of the current crisis, which is not Nigel Farage’s political wizardry, or slavering hordes of xenophobes, but the reluctance of the political establishment to accept an instruction that they themselves solicited.
 See Peter Mair, Ruling The Void: The Hollowing Of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2013); also Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (London: Penguin 2018).
 See also Lee Jones, “Brexit in Name Only: Causes and Consequences”, Briefings for Brexit, 1 November 2018; Lee Jones, “Brexit delayed – the self-paved road back to serfdom”, UK in a Changing Europe, 9 May 2019.
 “Opinion polling for the next United Kingdom general election”, Wikipedia, 13 May 2019; “Euro election pollwatch: How are the parties faring?”, BBC News, 10 May 2019.
 “Nigel Farage: ‘I will never, ever use the word manifesto’”, Talk Radio, 13 May 2019.
 Eatwell and Goodwin, National Populism.
About the Author
Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London.
This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.