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With this year‘s local elections defined by anti-Big Two sentiment the next step will be for Farage to enter the fray: is he as vulnerable to an authentic working class challenge as Labour are?

This year’s local elections were predictably catastrophic for the Tory party, but perhaps more significantly Labour went backwards at a point in the electoral cycle when any aspiring party of government should be devouring the opposition.
There was a clear Brexit gradient in effect, with Labour’s vote falling most in heavily Leave areas while the Tories lost a full one-third of the seats they contested in majority-Remain areas. But the underlying dynamic was anti-Big Two sentiment, with John Curtice noting that ‘what the two parties had in common was a tendency for their support to fall more heavily in their heartlands. Labour’s vote fell back most heavily in the north, the Conservatives in the south. Equally, Labour’s vote fell more heavily in wards where it was previously strong, while the Conservative vote fell most heavily where they were strongest.’

And perhaps most ominously for the legacy parties, this all happened without the presence of Farage. The Brexit party have declared they intend to stand candidates in the next general election, and pre-announced that any Brexit deal agreed upon by May and Corbyn would be a ‘stitch-up’. But before that comes the European elections, and the most recent YouGov polling shows the Brexit party leading on 30%. More strikingly, among C2DE (skilled manual, semi-skilled, unskilled and non-working) the Brexit party score 33% with UKIP picking up another 6%, while Labour are back on 21%.
Just as Brexit is a symptom and catalyst of underlying tensions rather than a cause, so Farage’s pitch of democracy betrayed and a nation humiliated now transcends the referendum. A few weeks ago Farage told the Sunday Times that ‘there are about 5m people who voted Corbyn in 2017 and voted Brexit the year before, and I think that’s where I need to be. My priority as leader of this party is to go into the Labour heartlands. It’s my intention to go round south Wales, the Midlands, the north, and absolutely lay it out there, the extent to which they are being sold out by Labour.’
Beyond this, Farage stated that the Euro elections were ‘just the warm-up’ for ‘fundamental change . . . beyond Brexit’ in Britain’s two-party system. He wants to ‘replace’ the Conservatives, claiming that ‘very senior Tory representatives and donors’ are talking to him about a possible split and that they ‘think we could be near a tipping point . . . it means they come across to this [the Brexit Party], or something new comes. If it was ever going to happen, it’s going to be this year.’

As Farage alludes, there have been indications for some time that the electoral coalitions of both the major parties are fracturing. Labour has lost much of its working class base, and stand to lose a good deal of what’s left if they wholeheartedly back a second referendum. Yet if they don’t, they alienate their middle class vote. Labour’s ambiguous and unprincipled Brexit stance, which helped avoid disaster in 2017, was always unsustainable in the longer run, and there is no easy solution to their conundrum now.

All that has prevented a political re-alignment from taking place already is the first past the post system. France has seen the demise of its traditional parties and a re-orientation around the poles of liberal capitalism and nationalism, with working class politics very much on the outs. One can see the political mainstream in the UK and across the developed world moving in a similar direction. When Macron defeated Le Pen in 2017 liberals hailed it as a great anti-fascist victory. How does that look now?

When it was put to Farage that it would be difficult to get Labour voters to back a party that wanted to replace the Tories, his response was ‘We’ve begun to self-identify between leavers or remainers ahead of being Labour or Conservative. I think maybe the left-right thing is breaking down in the most extraordinary way.’ And here he reveals the potential weakness of his project. The FN in France has long had a left-leaning, redistributionist economic pitch, while Farage and his acolytes are instinctive Thatcherites. So while Farage may have identified a Labour Achilles heel and hence a potential opportunity, his would-be populist project has a weakness of its own. Farage’s left flank is as vulnerable to challenge as Labour’s working class one. And in that spot may lie the opportunity to re-define politics beyond the neo-liberalism of the left and the populism of the right, and bring the working class in from the cold.

This article first appeared on the Independent Working Class Association facebook page on the date given above and has been transferred here in August 2019.

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