Just how extreme is Nigel Farage’s Reform UK?

With just two weeks to go until a snap general election, Britain’s ruling Conservative Party looks set to face what could be its biggest defeat in more than a century.

While the Labour Party is expected to win a landslide victory, much of the credit for the Conservatives’ downfall will be due to an insurgent party to their right.

According to the polls, the anti-immigration, anti-”woke” and culturally traditionalist party Reform UK, led by leading Brexit activist and former MEP Nigel Farage, is set to take as much as 15% or more of the national vote. One poll that showed it leading the Tories by a single point received wall-to-wall coverage, though the lead was within the margin of error.

Farage himself is now running to become an MP for the seat of Clacton, an area that has received national attention mainly for its voters’ intensely pro-Brexit views and its atmosphere of economic depression.

It will be Farage’s eighth attempt to get into parliament, and for the first time, he is widely expected to win.

So who are the voters he is trying to win over?

Reform’s pitch appears squarely aimed at a stereotypical older right-wing voter — but according to Paula Surridge, Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Bristol, the slice of the electorate currently backing the party straddles the left-right divide more than many commentators acknowledge. 

“The voters Reform have been winning from the Conservatives are most distinctive in terms of having immigration as their core concern,” she told Euronews. “They are particularly hardline on illegal immigration and the ‘small boats’.”

“In terms of values they are a little more socially conservative than those who have been staying loyal to the Conservatives, but notably more economically left-leaning — something a little out of tune with the party rhetoric and manifesto.”

That manifesto, branded by Reform as a “Contract with You”, is heavily focused on trying to cut taxes and turbo-charge economic growth.

It contains various measures that appear designed to appeal to wealthier voters, among them an extravagant commitment to lift the inheritance tax threshold so that estates worth less than £2 million (€2.36m) are exempted.

The fiscal element of the so-called contract was shredded in an analysis by the independent Institute of Fiscal Studies, which concluded that “even with the extremely optimistic assumptions about how much economic growth would increase, the sums in this manifesto do not add up.”

‘Reclaiming Britain’: All-out culture war assault

But if these plans sit at odds with many potential Reform voters’ economic views, the manifesto’s other policies are a laundry list of the hardline right’s favourite topics.

Aside from a strident plan to freeze non-essential immigration and impose a punitive levy on businesses that employ “foreign workers”, the contract also pushes for the end of what it calls “woke policing” and a philosophical cleanup of British education.

It would force schools to “ban transgender ideology” while enforcing a “patriotic” model of education, declaring that “any teaching about a period or example of British or European imperialism or slavery must be paired with the teaching of a non-European occurrence of the same to ensure balance.”

The national identity theme even gets its own full page, titled “Reclaiming Britain”, a section that nods towards post-COVID-19 paranoia about the World Health Organization, the World Economic Forum, and the declining use of cash currency.

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage speaks onboard the Reform UK campaign bus in Barnsley, England.

Alongside proposing two new national holidays to celebrate Welsh and English identity, the manifesto declares it would launch an all-out culture war assault.

“Legislate to stop left-wing bias and politically correct ideology that threatens personal freedom and democracy,” it reads. “No more de-banking, cancel culture, left wing hate mobs or political bias in public institutions. Stop Sharia law being used in the UK.” (Sharia law is not used in the British legal system.)

This, then, is what the party says it wants. But just as telling are the people it has chosen to represent it.

Into the fray, beyond the fringe

Many of Reform UK’s 600-plus candidates were selected in a rush when the snap election was called by Rishi Sunak. This left the party with little time to vet them for problematic past statements, and the results have not been good.

One candidate, Ian Gribbin, was forced to apologise after the resurfacing of old posts on a right-wing news site in which he wrote that it would have been “far better” for the UK to have stayed out of World War II.

“Britain would be in a far better state today had we taken Hitler up on his offer of neutrality … but oh no, Britain’s warped mindset values weird notions of international morality rather than looking after its own people,” one of the posts read.

He also referred to women as the “sponging gender” and suggested they should be deprived of medical care until the life expectancy gap between the sexes could be closed. He remains Reform UK’s candidate for the seat of Bexhill and Battle.

Another candidate, Jack Aaron, has had to defend comments in which he described Hitler as a “brilliant” man according to “Socionics”, a fringe pseudoscientific theory of personality types. Again, he remains a candidate.

One Reform candidate who has actually stood down is Grant StClair-Armstrong, who, it was revealed, had previously urged readers to vote for the openly racist British National Party.

Apologising for his comments, which Reform itself condemned as “unacceptable”, StClair-Amstrong was insistent that: “I am not a racist in any shape or form, outspoken maybe. I have many Muslim friends, three of whom refer to me as Daddy.” Politico reported that he did not appear to be discussing his children.

Farage and his de facto co-leader, Richard Tice, have blamed these incidents on the supposed failures of a third-party vetting contractor, against whom they say they are considering legal action. However, it has transpired that the party, in fact, used Vetting.com, which is not a vetting agency but an automated paid-for platform to which users can upload information themselves.

Nonetheless, Farage has suggested an establishment “stitch-up” may be to blame.

But aside from the plethora of candidates that Reform insists it did not have time to vet properly, there is the matter of what Farage himself has said since the campaign began. 

When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak left a D-Day commemoration ceremony early, shocking his allies and outraging much of the nation, Farage used an interview to complain that the UK’s first premier of Asian descent “doesn’t understand our history and our culture”.

Called out for his remarks on air by a BBC interviewer, Farage insisted his point was that Sunak is “utterly disconnected by class, by privilege, from how the ordinary folk in this country feel”.

Farage as the wrecking ball (again)

The extent to which all of this matters depends largely on the result Reform get on 4 July — and on what Farage does next. 

According to the polls, Reform is set to take as much as 15% or more of the national vote. One poll that showed it leading the Tories by a single point received wall-to-wall coverage, but the lead was within the survey’s margin of error.

Yet this polling surge may not directly translate into any meaningful number of seats.

Under the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, a party’s national share of the vote is essentially irrelevant. Instead, each seat is represented by the candidate who wins the most votes within the constituency, however small their share might be.

This does not seem to bother Farage, who originally claimed he was not planning to run at all. His entrance into the fray has boosted his party, and he is increasingly open about his goal of destroying the Conservative Party in its current form.

Depending on how reduced that party is in size after 4 July and who leads it into its years out of power, he may yet be admitted to its ranks himself.

And if he makes it through to a leadership contest, the grassroots party members who make the final decision might well give him a chance to run the show.

Euronews has reached out to Reform UK for comment but the party did not respond at the time of publishing.

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