The rapid rise of the Brexit Party to first place in the opinion polls for the European elections is rightly sending shockwaves through Westminster and beyond. It is currently forecast to win more votes than the Tories and Labour combined.
Make no mistake, Farage is preparing a kind of insurrection against a system which is in deep political and constitutional crisis. The immediate cause is Brexit but the roots of the crisis go back much further, to the harsh nature of neoliberal capitalism experienced over 30 years and more.
Parliament’s paralysis in the face of the 2016 referendum result, which was a kind of rejection of the status quo, leaves it incapable of or unwilling to complete the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Alternatively, there is no stomach for revoking the decision to leave formally made by Theresa May in March 2017.
Both major parties are deeply split and the result is deadlock. The perception is of a “failed political establishment’, as Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage would have it, an “elite” that has had its day in the populist language that he is the master of.
Elections to a relatively toothless European Parliament mean little in terms of what goes on in Brussels. They can and have, however, become a springboard for the far right and populists to propel their parties into the limelight and sometimes governments in their home countries.
In Italy, the Five-Star Movement, which has close links with Farage, became the largest party in parliament and formed a coalition with the ultra-right Lega party, whose deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini is a fan of the country’s former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
In just two months, Farage’s party has reportedly attracted more than 100,000 supporters paying £25 each, demolished Ukip, and has the Tories in its sights. Farage looks certain to take votes from disgruntled Labour voters as well. The future of UK politics is more uncertain than ever.
Farage is cashing in on the fact that three in five British voters say politics in Westminster and Brussels is broken, according to a poll. The same Europe-wide survey of 60,000 people found that most EU voters believe the European project could collapse within the next 10-20 years, showing that the crisis is not confined to the UK.
The clear aim of the Brexit Party leadership is not to reform the UK political system but to bring it down altogether. “I’ve come to realise that with our existing political system we are never going to get the Brexit that we voted for,” he told a rally. “These two parties,” Farage fulminated, “filled with career politicians, influenced by big money and the politicians, simply won’t ever deliver it to us. They are trying to build a coalition of the politicians against the people.”
Farage slyly transcends the left-right divide, saying that he sees “the whole of western world politics utterly dominated by a handful of giant multinationals and a career political class” and that the fight is more than Brexit and is “a full-on battle against the establishment”.
The Brexit Party is a registered company, using advanced web-based techniques to build what looks like a mass movement but which is autocratically controlled from the top by Farage. This is actually a more advanced form of corporatism than the one Farage decries.
Yet he addresses issues that the mainstream parties continue to ignore at their peril, notably the crisis of democracy. The real sense that people lack any real power and that their votes count for little is symptomatic of a political system that is no neither truly representative nor effective.
So how can we defeat Farage and the insidious populism that he represents? Immediately, we should try and limit the Brexit Party’s vote in the European elections. It’s important to put down a marker against his dangerous populism.
Unfortunately, Labour has no clear policy on Brexit because of its own divisions. Certainly, the party-within-a-party led by Tom Watson, the deputy leader, want to use Brexit to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and ultimately remove him from office. Their demand for a second referendum is designed to weaken Corbyn rather than engage the electorate in a democratic exercise.
Nevertheless, Corbyn says he wants to unite the country around a programme of progressive social and economic reform, both as a response to those who voted leave as well reluctant remainers.
So I will give Corbyn-led Labour my vote at the polling booth on May 23 and you should do the same.
Ultimately, however, the defeat of Farage and his ilk means offering a viable alternative to his seductive but reactionary populism. Voting against him is a start, but only a start.
For Labour, that should lead first to a real attempt to distinguish themselves from the populist language used by Farage. Too often, Corbyn and his team are drawn into similar remarks about “self-serving elites” and the establishment, amid claims that the economy is “rigged”.
This is too vague. It is not about elites, or a rigged system. It’s about the nature of contemporary, neoliberal capitalism, about global ruling classes and state-political systems that have no independence from corporate and financial power interests.
In other words, the only way to cut through populism, is to get to the heart of the matter and identify capitalism when you talk about the “system”. More and more people, especially those fighting the climate emergency, identify capitalism as the problem rather than the solution. Labour needs to do the same.
The rise of the Brexit Party is clearly a threat to existing democratic freedoms and rights, including a Parliament that for all its long history is a shadow of its former self. Surely the aim should be to advance and deepen the power of the people while fending off attacks on our democratic heritage forged in many centuries of struggle against the state.
That’s why I urge you to support the petition to give power to the people to transform UK democracy. As it says: “The current Brexit deadlock is merely one symptom of failure, which has led to deepening inequality, austerity, record levels of homelessness and poverty, crumbling public services and runaway climate change”. The petition adds:
“We therefore call for the setting up of grassroots Citizens’ Conventions throughout the UK. They will develop proposals for a new, truly democratic system based on a written constitution and a transfer of power to the people.”
If you want to defeat Farage, backing and sharing this petition is a step in the right direction.