Trusting opinion polls can burn — Ed Miliband learnt this the hard way in 2015 — but so can disregarding them. Hence the recent animated response to Reform UK’s upward polling trajectory.
Progressives are taking the substantial vote share forecast for the latest incarnation of the Brexit Party, a joint project of Nigel Farage and Richard Tice, as cause for celebration. I’m unconvinced.
Earlier this year, Reform UK’s leader, Tice, said unequivocally that there’ll be no electoral deals with the Conservatives. Of course, this makes for grim news if you’re a Tory. At the 2019 General Election, Nigel Farage handed Boris Johnson a lifeline when he stood down Brexit Party prospective parliamentary candidates in constituencies across the UK. This dramatically minimised the risk of vote-splitting on the right — something yet to be mastered on the left and left-of-centre — resulting in Tory victories in numerous seats where, had the Brexit Party not compromised, progressive challengers could very plausibly have won.
That the Brexit Party’s successor party, Reform UK, has ruled out right-wing cooperation, of the kind facilitated by Farage in 2019, increases the likelihood of a fractured right-wing vote. This could make progressive victories more easily realisable in constituencies up and down the country.
When did we start to put stock in the pronouncements of right-wing demagogues, though?
Don’t get me wrong, if Tice makes good on his ruling out of cooperation with the Conservatives, progressives stand to benefit. The risk, however, is that the duck will quack — that an opportunist will follow the opportunity, irrespective of what he might have said previously.
Perhaps fourteen years of Conservative government have made me cynical. Or perhaps not. Scratch beneath the surface of Tice’s comments on electoral cooperation, and alarm bells should ring. Reform UK will stand in every seat across the country, Tice has declared on several occasions. In other words, there will be no electoral deals with the Conservatives where that means standing down Reform UK candidates.
We know, however, that cooperation doesn’t start and end with “stand-aside” agreements.
One of the things that Compass activists organising at the grassroots know well is that progressive cooperation takes various forms, and it’s exceptionally rare for a party’s candidates to be stood down en masse, as was the case with the Brexit Party in 2019. It’s much more common for parties to cooperate through non-aggression pacts and by standing “paper candidates” but agreeing not to campaign for them with any enthusiasm.
This feature of progressive cooperation holds true in the case of regressive cooperation. Reform UK and the Tories might still come to some cooperation agreement, and Reform UK’s sizeable vote share potentially increases the likelihood of cooperation with the Conservatives — just not in the form of stand-aside agreements.
Tice’s comments about the post-election period only serve to strengthen the case against the progressive celebration of Reform UK’s predicted vote share. He has repeatedly refused to rule out such forms of cooperation as power-sharing in a post-election coalition with the Conservatives. If Tice is willing to compromise after the election in order to achieve influence over the direction of government, why rest assured that Reform UK won’t agree to some kind of non-stand-aside cooperation before the election if it secures the party some comparable influence?
Speculating about events yet to unfold in British politics is risky, but we know several things confidently. Current Tory MPs are in conversation with Reform UK, and just last week, chair of the Conservative Party, Richard Holden, said that should Nigel Farage, honorary president of Reform UK, apply for membership of the Conservative Party, his request would be considered.
I recoil at the thought of Tory-Reform cooperation in the form of Reform UK candidates running for parliament as Conservative Party nominees — but stranger things have happened. If Conservative Party and Reform UK selections for parliamentary candidates were to become intermingled, Tice could still plausibly say that Reform UK candidates are standing all across Britain, albeit with blue rosettes.
The upshot of the potentiality of a regressive alliance is this: celebration amongst progressives about Reform UK’s predicted vote share is premature.
The case for progressive cooperation is just as urgent now as it was before Reform UK began to look poised to split the Tory vote. As is the case for democratic reform, starting with the introduction of a proportional voting system for the House of Commons.
Only when we free ourselves from the shackles of First Past the Post will we be able to look beyond the disingenuous electoral gymnastics our current voting system forces us to contort to. Only then will we be able to cooperate with other parties for the right reasons, and not need to worry about the sorts of backroom deal-brokering that Reform UK and the Tories may yet engage in.
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