It’s always been easy for liberals to mock Nigel Farage: for his posturing against the “establishment”, despite being a privately educated City trader; for his affected tweeds and boozy bonhomie; for his endless failure to win a seat in parliament. And now, for his latest bumbling retreat. After loudly proclaiming that his Brexit party would stand general election candidates across the country, he was forced to make an awkward U-turn last week, announcing that they would withdraw from Conservative-held seats in a bid to ensure a leave majority in the next House of Commons.
It’s easy, but pointless. This looks like a personal humiliation for Farage, and it has clearly angered many of his own party activists. But it may be a sign of his ultimate triumph. What helps make Farage one of the most skilled campaigners of this century is precisely his willingness to let himself look ridiculous, or to make and break alliances without concern for appearances, in the service of his greater project.
Farage cannot withdraw from Labour marginals without surrendering his one bit of leverage to pressure the Tories
This project – splitting the UK from the European Union and forcing the realignment of the British right on nationalist and reactionary grounds – is now closer to being achieved than at any point in his career. And it is not Farage who has moved but the Conservative party. His “unilateral” election pact with the Tories was, in reality, the result of behind-the-scenes begging from Boris Johnson’s camp and enormous public pressure from rightwing tabloids. It was made possible because the Conservatives have been pulled squarely on to his territory, with rightwing populists in the ascendant and the more liberal-minded MPs jumping ship.
Yet Farage was unwilling to go the whole way and stand down Brexit party candidates in Labour-held marginal seats – which, according to most analysts, would have been a much bigger help to Johnson. This is because Farage is not ready to concede what has always been his most powerful weapon: his reputed appeal to “left behind” voters.
The coalition of support he has mobilised in his various campaigns – first with Ukip, then in the 2016 referendum, and now in the Brexit party – has always been rooted in the right-leaning English middle classes. But what has always attracted the most attention is the appeal of Faragism to a minority of working-class voters in former industrial towns of England and Wales. This is the secret of his success: it sparks panic among Labour politicians that their “traditional” voters might desert them, and sparks hope among Tories that they can hoover up the rest. Farage, who does not trust Johnson to keep his promises, cannot withdraw from Labour marginals without surrendering his one bit of leverage to press the Tories and get the Brexit he wants.
The real currency of Faragism is hype. For all that he’s recently been touring the country and addressing Brexit party rallies away from London, Farage’s key political battleground has always been the media. In this, he makes the most of an uneven playing field. An insurgent rightwing politician has advantages the left does not: from a rightwing press that provides sympathetic framing, to a broadcast media with a penchant for adversarial debates and controversial talking points so long as they come mainly from the right.
Farage has capitalised on this imbalance to push at the boundaries of what is politically acceptable, making rightwing populist appeals – to a sense of betrayal by elites, to English nationalist resentment, or to the kind of nudge-and-a-wink racism that suits British sensibilities – while carefully avoiding any direct association with fascists, which would be poison to his wider ambitions. He was burned early on in his political career by a photograph of him talking to two BNP activists, one of whom was a senior party member with convictions for explosives offences and an assault on a Jewish schoolteacher. Since then Farage has been careful to keep people with direct involvement in fascist politics away from his campaigns.
But none of this success would be possible without the enduring stereotype of the “white working class”. It exploits the blind spot of a London-based media dominated by journalists from elite backgrounds – and plays on liberals’ guilt that they don’t really know the country they are supposed to be representing. Farage isn’t the only politician to have used it to his advantage. A series of far-right political activists, from the BNP’s Nick Griffin to the former EDL leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, have sought to position themselves as the voice of this constituency. “Red Tory” initiatives from the likes of Nick Timothy and Phillip Blond have sought to claim it for mainstream conservatism. Yet only Farage has really succeeded in using it to transform British politics.
“White working class” is a patronising and divisive way of talking about a real problem: feelings of abandonment, fear for the future, and a lack of control that are shared by people from a far wider range of backgrounds than fit the stereotype. There was a point when Ukip looked as if it wanted to build a more durable grassroots movement out of this discontent; but Farage’s decision to abandon the party – which quickly disintegrated as rival factions fought for control and ended up aligning it with the far right – suggests he was never really interested in establishing a party that actually represents the interests of its members.
The Brexit party, with its centralised leadership and transactional relationship with activists – it has “registered supporters” rather than members, and potential election candidates were asked to pay £100 for the privilege of applying – is better calibrated to further Farage’s goals. It can be more easily controlled, and its carefully selected candidates give the appearance of novelty – from relatively diverse backgrounds and a few former leftists (mainly people associated with Spiked magazine, an entryist sect that grew out of the Revolutionary Communist party). And yet its activist base continues to overlap with the racist and conspiracy theorist scenes, online and offline, that make up today’s far right.
Whether or not this election marks the end of the Brexit party, Farage’s way of doing politics has already colonised the mainstream. Too often in the past, leftists and liberals have tried to dismiss it – or make a bargain with the xenophobic nationalism on which it rests. As Labour’s prolonged debate over migration policy shows, some influential figures are still trying to talk tough.
But the only way to defeat Faragism is by building something Farage cannot: a mass movement that seeks to give people genuine control over their lives, founded on principles of equality rather than national or ethnic privilege. If we abandon that goal, he has already won.