General Election Analysis: Reform wins highest ever far-right vote but few seats

09 07 24

Reflections on an election that saw the UK’s largest ever vote for a far-right party

The 2024 General Election looks to be a particularly significant one even though the outcome – a landslide victory for Labour – was shown in the polls for months in advance. The scale of the Conservative and SNP wipeouts and the election of new Lib Dem, Reform, Green and Independent candidates will have lasting impact on the political landscape and increase scrutiny of the UK’s political system.

It is of course the result for Reform UK which will dominate our work here at HOPE not hate, and be a source of concern for anyone viewing the simultaneous advance of far-right forces in other nations across Europe.   

With 4.1 million votes, 14.3% of the total, the result represents the largest ever vote for a far right party at a General Election, exceeding the 3.9 million achieved by UKIP in 2015. That this result returned just five Reform UK MPs – which is itself a significant event in a political system that generally proves impenetrable to new parties – should not cause us to become complacent about the future prospects for the British far right. 

The party came second place in 98 constituencies, including large swathes of the North East, Midlands and South Wales, and gained above 20% of the vote in 147. While not all of these were close-run contests, such results will encourage activists in those constituencies to organise themselves over the next five years, and come the next election they will be able to credibly present as the best-placed opposition choice rather than a gamble or protest vote.

However, while we need to maintain a healthy level of concern and determination when viewing Reform UK’s electoral advance, it is also important to keep a level head about what did and did not occur. Overstating Reform’s successes will be a vital tool of those who want to drive both what’s left of the Conservative party and the media narrative in Reform UK’s direction. 

Reform UK’s vote was overstated and the Conservative vote understated by most pollsters  prior to the election; in the end a clear majority of the right-wing voters the party needs to win over to win a future election decided to stick with the Conservatives or stay at home rather than give their vote to Reform. We should therefore reject any attempts to present Reform’s agenda as being the established will of the British right, let alone that of the British public at large.  

Another theme of the election, though one which is just a continuation of previous years, is the utter failure of any other far-right parties to make a breakthrough. Reform UK looks set to dominate the far right of the UK political spectrum for years to come. 

Reform UK

After the official exit poll suggested that 18 Reform UK candidates had been elected, many will have greeted the eventual result of five with an uncharacteristic sigh of relief. Four of the five seats which returned Reform candidates were somewhat predictable:

  • Newly crowned-leader Nigel Farage scored a convincing win in Clacton, taking 46.2% of the vote and a majority of 8,405 over the Conservative incumbent, Giles Watling. This represents a swing of 45.1% from the Conservatives to Reform in the constituency, the largest in the country.
  • The party’s sole incumbent MP, Ex-Tory defector Lee Anderson, was rewarded by avoiding the fate of most of his former Red Wall Tory colleagues. He netted a commanding 42.8% of the vote to defeat the Labour candidate Rhea Keehn, though with a slightly lower vote share and majority to his 2019 victory.
  • Former leader Richard Tice and former Brexit Party MEP and Southampton FC chairman Rupert Lowe also won their seats of Boston & Skegness and Great Yarmouth, though with lower majorities of 2,010 and 1,426 respectively.

The one breakthrough from Reform’s candidate list, of whom the party has admitted the vast majority were just paper candidates, was James McMurdock of Basildon South and East Thurrock, who beat the Labour candidate there with a wafer-thin majority of just 98 votes. 

The party would later add another name to their caucus: Jim Allister, leader of the hardline Ulster unionist party Traditional Unionist Voice, announced that he would accept the Reform Party whip at Westminster, a result of the insurgent party’s close relationship with Reform deputy leader Ben Habib.

Politicians and commentators who hope to see the Conservative Party veer drastically to the right in the months and years ahead will use Reform UK’s performance in this election as the basis of their arguments, portraying the Reform UK’s voters as a bloc of disaffected right-wing Conservative voters who could easily be wooed back en masse by a sufficiently far-right Tory leader. 

Such analysis is inevitably simplistic and misleading. Headline voting figures often conceal more subtle movements of votes between parties and turnout effects, and we cannot calculate the role of Reform UK in causing Tory losses by simply identifying the constituencies where the Reform vote share is greater than the Tory vote deficit. 

Moreover, the party cannot simply mimic Reform UK without risking what is left of their base; those voters who plumped for Conservative over Reform candidates at this election may choose a different party altogether if the two become indistinguishable. 

It is of course difficult to make any predictions of what shifts and trends will take place between now and the next General Election, likely to take place in 2029. After all, no one looking ahead in the aftermath of GE2019 could have known that COVID-19, the cost of living and Gaza conflict would be deciding the fates of Prime Ministers and MPs over the course of that Parliament. 
There are myriad factors to consider when assessing Reform UK’s prospects:

  • Whether Reform UK can maintain discipline and avoid the embarrassing scandals that dogged UKIP, having spent the past five years largely sheltered from the scrutiny that other parties receive.
  • The future direction of the Conservative Party, which must decide whether to remodel itself in a Faragist image to chase those voters who defected to Reform, or build some form of new electoral coalition.
  • The success of the Labour government in maintaining its new electorate, which is built on smaller margins in a larger range of seats and thus vulnerable to a variety of challengers from the left and right.

Further Right

The extreme right made little effort to contest the election, with Britain First, Homeland and National Housing Party all sitting out the election. Despite displaying much hostility towards Reform UK under the leadership of Richard Tice, many on the extreme right would urge their supporters to back the party following the return of Farage.

Most ambitious were the English Democrats with 16 candidates, including four activists for the fascist group Patriotic Alternative (PA) standing under the party’s banner.

All four attracted little interest from the public. Matthew Darrington, PA’s regional organiser in the East Midlands, standing in Newark for the English Democrats received only 156 votes. The other three, Thomas Bryer, Catherine Blaiklock and Stephen Morris, all placed in last or second to last place in their respective constituencies.

Anti-migrant activist Steve Laws, who has attracted a significant social media following with his extreme racism against migrants and non-white Britons, also stood for the English Democrats. His racist campaign, advocating a policy of remigration, did not speak to the voters in Dover and Deal receiving only 185 votes.

The British Democrats which splintered from the British National Party stood a handful of candidates. Only Frank Calladine in Doncaster North, which has seen relatively stronger past performances by the BNP, had anything that resembled success with 1160 votes, placing him 5th out of 9 candidates.

The Scottish Family Party, launched by the former UKIP candidate Richard Lucas, fielded 16 candidates on a platform against same sex marriage and most forms of gender equality legislation. None had any success, with Steven Welsh in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, doing best with 2.9% vote share and position 7 out of 8.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) fielded candidates in 23 seats and achieved less than 1% of the vote in all but two; Janice McKay in Stone, Great Wyrley & Penkridge managed 6.1% of the vote while Stan Robinson of Voice of Wales got just 1.5% of the vote in Llanelli, a disappointing result given his lead role in the acrimonious local campaign against migrant accommodation at a local hotel.

Looking Ahead

While it would be foolish to forecast the next election, it seems clear that Reform UK will suffocate the prospects of other far right organisations in the UK in the near term. The party will hoover up the memberships, money and manpower of those who seek a radical rightwing government, and minor parties will struggle to explain how a party with few or no councillors is a better vehicle for their grievances than one with 6 MPs in Westminster.

Such a dominance brings its own pitfalls, however. Unless the party is able to drastically improve its vetting and party discipline, it will struggle to assemble a electoral formula that can win over the huge segments of the population needed for a Westminster majority. The entry of members and activists from more extreme organisations will only make this task harder.


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