Campaigning on discontent in the U.K. | WORLD
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Campaigning on discontent

IN THE NEWS | A U.K. election shows how international realities are reshaping right- and left-wing politics

Nigel Farage campaigns in Dover, England. Gareth Fuller / PA via AP

Campaigning on discontent
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During a televised political debate ahead of the U.K.’s planned July 4 elections, right-wing British politician Nigel Farage held out both his arms as if he were welcoming voters to join him in victory. But instead, he was inviting them to join him in defeat. “Labour are going to win—the debate is who forms the opposition in the next Parliament.”

It was just four days before the June 7 debate that Farage announced he was running for a seat in Parliament as head of the Reform UK party. But he needed no preparation. Farage has been hosting a TV show for the past three years and was visibly more comfortable with the cameras than the other politicians. Even the purple-and-pink pattern on his tie seemed to be coordinated with the BBC set.

Farage is a mainstay of British politics. With a populist bent and a folksy appeal, he’s often seen holding campaign events in bars and being photographed with a glass of beer. Now, though, he could cost the Conservative Party as many as 60 to 70 extra seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, setting the party on course for the worst electoral outcome in its history.

But that’s not all: Farage’s return has the potential not only to tank the Conservative Party but also to reshape the landscape of British politics. Moreover, the dynamics driving the U.K.’s elections could be seen as part of a political realignment underway in many developed countries—including the United States. On both sides of the pond, disruptive political figures are redefining what it means to be left- or right-wing.

BRITISH VOTER Rachel Barclay had just poured herself a cup of tea and sat down at her kitchen table on June 3 to check her Facebook feed. She stopped scrolling when she saw a picture of Farage, his hands clasped pensively in front of his chin. Below the picture were two words: “I’m back.”

Farage’s surprise entrance shook up voters like Barclay, as well as Britain’s parliamentary election, whose outcome had been considered predictable. The issue weighing heaviest on Barclay’s mind is “mass immigration to take the lower-skilled workers’ jobs,” she said.

Polls show British voters overall are deeply dissatisfied with the direction of their country, and that they are ready to jettison the Conservative Party, which has been in power for 14 years. The rival Labour Party is on course to win a majority in the July elections.

Farage represented southeast England as a member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2020, but he has run unsuccessfully for U.K. Parliament seven times. He became well known as the voice of Euroscepticism after founding the U.K. Independence Party in 1993. That party started as a fringe right-wing movement, but swept the European elections with ease by 2014.

Farage has “been one of the most effective British politicians in the last 14 years, I’d say, despite never having been an MP,” said Christopher Fear, a lecturer at the University of Hull in England.

Farage played a leading role in the Brexit referendum, starting Reform UK (then called the Brexit Party) in 2018 to push for Brexit and call for scaling back foreign aid and immigration. He left organized politics for a television career in 2021. (He’s also a friend of former U.S. President Donald Trump.)

Rishi Sunak—in blue tie next to his wife Akshata Murty (wearing yellow dress)—poses with supporters in Silverstone, England.

Rishi Sunak—in blue tie next to his wife Akshata Murty (wearing yellow dress)—poses with supporters in Silverstone, England. Benjamin Cremel/Pool Photo via AP

BRITISH POLITICAL OBSERVERS were surprised by Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to schedule a parliamentary election on July 4 rather than in autumn. Stephen Davies, head of education at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a British free-market think tank, suspects Sunak was trying—unsuccessfully—to preempt Farage. “They wanted to catch Reform on the hop and stop Nigel Farage running,” he said.

Davies believes the dynamics driving the U.K. elections are best understood as part of that broader political “realignment” taking place in many developed countries. “Up until about eight to 10 years ago, the big dividing issue in politics was over free markets versus government intervention. So you had a free market right versus an interventionist left,” said Davies. There was also a secondary divide over social issues like abortion. Today, however, Davies believes the left-right divide is over globalism versus nationalism.

He suggests that conflict is evidenced in American politics, too. “If you think of people like Sen. Josh Hawley, Sen. Vance from Ohio, even Donald Trump—to the extent that he has a coherent position about this—you see very much a combination of economic nationalism, interventionist economic policy and nationalism, nativism, American unilateralism in foreign policy, versus the much more globalist approach of the Biden administration and the Democrat Party more generally.”

In Britain, Davies believes the same realignment is taking place, but the Conservative Party has not adapted. The party leadership selects candidates for Parliament and their choices aren’t speaking to voters’ true concerns. As a result, Davies believes they are “looking at possibly an extinction-level defeat.”

Farage could play an important role in bringing that about, with his appeal to issues of concern to voters, such as immigration. British voters are extremely unhappy about the state of public services, particularly their public healthcare system, the National Health Service (NHS). This year’s NHS budget of 164 billion pounds ($209 billion) is a slight increase from last year, but it’s not enough to offset the effects of inflation and a rapidly growing and aging population.

The dynamics driving the U.K. elections are best understood as part of a broader political “realignment” taking place in many developed countries.

The number of people waiting over 18 months for a doctor referral topped 14,000 at the end of January—up from about 13,000 at the end of December. The government is filling staffing gaps by allowing physician associates (PAs), who have not attended medical school, to carry out some tasks. Reports are circulating that PAs are illegally prescribing medications and scheduling tests.

The dysfunction in the NHS is mirrored elsewhere in government. “We’ve recently had the government actually asking the courts not to sentence people to custodial sentences, because the prison service simply is literally full up,” said Davies.

Voters are also worried about record levels of immigration. The Conservative Party has repeatedly promised to reduce immigration, yet over the last two years, almost 2 million people have immigrated to the U.K. Today, nearly 1 in 6 of the British population was born outside the country.

This rapid population surge has boosted the economy, accounting for nearly all the recent growth in the labor force. But the influx of migrants also strains national resources. For instance, one new home would have to be built every five minutes to keep up with the housing demand, according to 2019 projections from the Office for National Statistics.

British voter Rachel Barclay worries the immigration trend will lead to unemployment for British workers. While Farage speaks to those concerns, she is not sure she trusts him. Barclay plans to research her local candidates before making up her mind. She always votes, she said, but she’s not looking forward to her next trip to the ballot box: “Britain’s not a happy place to be politically at the moment.”


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