Farage’s contract

It’s chaos at Reform HQ but that’s how they like it…

Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich presents his Contract with America in in front of a huge map of the USA.
A man with a contract

For an insurgency polling in double digits and threatening to disassemble the most successful political party in history, Reform UK is a pretty shabby outfit. Neither a high-gloss, updated 20th Century dinosaur like Le Pen’s National Rally, nor a dark, ideological machine like Alternative for Germany, nor even a big-money hostile take-over of an establishment party like Trump’s operation. But maybe we shouldn’t expect a slick operation here, maybe it’s not very British to expect a challenger from the far right to be anything other than scrappy and a bit lairy.

The man in the photo with all the American flags is Newt Gingrich – not a British politician, of course, but pugnacious Speaker of the US House of Representatives during the 1994 Congressional mid-terms, a veteran conservative political operator who wrote the Republican party’s programme for that election, an enormously influential document that many credit as the beginning of the populist turn, the epic shift in American politics that ultimately produced you know who.

Darren Selkus, army veteran and business owner, is Hertsmere’s Gingrich. Read about him on the Reform web site.

Gingrich’s document was no mere manifesto, no mere platform. It was a contract. A Contract with America. The idea was that instead of promoting a dry programme of dry legislation to be fought out vote by arduous vote through the congressional system once in power, the party would lay out an ambitious reworking of the system itself. Gingrich was a political visionary who saw an opportunity to put the Republican party back at the heart of things. In this he wasn’t so much a proto-Trump as Trump’s inverse – he wanted to shift the power in American politics back from the presidency to a radicalised congress.

His contract was more than the usual shopping list of policies carefully weighted for viability; it was a series of linked measures that would, together, overturn decades of post-war liberal orthodoxy – economic, social, diplomatic, everything. It begins with eight pledges – reforms to the congressional system aimed at cementing a conservative model of governance indefinitely. It’s a fascinating document, not least because it self-consciously marked the end of folksy, optimistic, forward-looking Reagan conservatism and the beginning of the darker variety the whole world is now familiar with – George W Bush’s messianic militarism, Trump’s ‘American carnage‘.

Britain’s Gingrich?

Gingrich was working as an insurgent inside one of the two governing parties, of course. He’d been an operator since the 1960s. Trump began as an outsider but entered the Republican party and hollowed it out brutally. It’s his party now. Farage has not yet achieved a position inside the Tory Party but he’s been influencing the shape and direction of the party pretty directly for twenty years now. He’s a kind of parasitic shadow leader, directing the mighty, 300 year-old Conservative Party, pint in hand, from the saloon bar. It’s only a few years since Farage looked like he was finished. Boris Johnson had cannily replaced him as populist folk hero, Brexit was finally done and the man himself seemed to be more interested in the goldmine on the other side of the Atlantic. But his influence endures. And we suspect he’s not finished with the Tory party yet, whether he’s elected in Clacton or not.

The Gingrich contract must have come to mind for many on Monday when Nigel Farage launched Reform’s ‘Contract With You‘. This contract isn’t quite as ambitious – and it’s likely to be a lot less influential (we suspect it was written in a bit of a hurry – count the typos).

Reform’s document steers clear of grand claims. It’s essentially a pretty focused list of policies designed as a response to a probable Labour government. Farage is positioning his party as the effective opposition in the coming Parliament. His assumption is that the Tories, no matter how many seats they finally win, will be so diminished, so intellectually exhausted that they’ll have little to offer while the party is laboriously rebuilt. That Reform, even from a base of a handful of seats, will dominate on the critical issues. And they might be right (they’ll need to win a few seats, though).

Beginning on the very first page we’re into a sequence of commitments that are carefully weighted to offer a challenge to the likely governing party without being in any way deliverable. Finding £50 Billion of savings in the civil service, a sum equal to the whole defence budget, seems implausible to say the least, for instance. Taking back £35 Billion per year from the commercial banks without causing mini-budget levels of market chaos likewise.

Pledges pledges pledges

You will find the obligatory numbered pledges at the beginning, though – obviously an indispensable element of any contemporary manifesto. These numbered pledges, for some reason, all begin with a kind of John Lennon flourish: 1) Imagine Smart Immigration, Not Mass Immigration; 2) Imagine No More Small Boats in the Channel; 3) Imagine No NHS Waiting Lists; 4) Imagine Good Wages for a Hard Day’s Work; 5) Imagine Affordable, Stable Energy Bills.

In this rather boring package, the only place where the language soars a little is in the final policy section, headed ‘Reform is needed to defend and promote British culture, identity and values’ (intriguing use of the passive voice there). This is where we find the more inflammatory bits – the obligatory mention of sharia law (not a single mention in the whole document of Farage’s favourite ‘Judeo-Christian values‘ though), anti-woke legislation, de-banking, dumping equalities legislation and so on. But it’s striking how unambitious this all is. Farage and Reform here are not reaching for a consitutional remaking of Great Britain or for the destruction of the liberal institutions of the post-war settlement. In fact all we get are some rather managerial proposals about running the NHS more efficiently and a predictable kicking for the old enemy – the BBC.

Policy Area Annualised Savings Over 5 Year
Electoral Term Amount in £ billions
Immigration Savings £5
Employer Immigration Tax £4
Energy Savings - tax subsidies & scrap Net
Zero £30
Benefit Saving - 1 million plus back to work £15
Transport & Utilities Savings £5
Slash wasteful Government spending
Save £5 in 100 incl govt depts. quangos,
commissions £50
Stop bank interest on QE reserves £35
Cut foreign aid by 50% £6
Sub-Total Potential Savings = £150 billion pa = Almost £3,000 per Adul
Comedy cost savings

In the financial section Reform turns out to be as obsessed with the zero-sum tax-and-spend calculations as the major parties. And this is interesting, not least because it’s not very revolutionary. Only a very cautious insurrectionary party would be so interested in retaining tight control over expenditure after the revolution. Of course it’s possible that this very cautious package is meant to answer fears about Farage as a potential Mussolini, seeking election so that he can cancel elections and rule forever, but we’re ready to bet that this is it. We’ve reached the limit of Reform’s intellectual and ideological ambition.

The table of savings at the end reads like the kind of Dragon’s Den forecast that would make Deborah Meaden weep – various conveniently round numbers totted up in a table so that party spokesmen can claim it’s ‘fully-costed’. Evaluating this lot would cause the entire staff of the OBR to faint in unison.

So why a contract?

Back in the nineties, the Contract With America wasn’t quite the ideological bulldozer Gingrich hoped it would be – it was essentially cut to ribbons in congress – by hostile conservatives from within his own party as well as by Clinton’s Democrats – reduced to a pretty thin set of compromised measures, most of which failed to pass. Gingrich went from sole proprietor of a congressional earthquake to “who?” in a few years. But his aggression, his unwavering rejection of the bi-partisan conventions of congress and his disrespect for his party’s elders have all influenced American politics to the present day.

Nigel Farage raises a glass of wine in a BBC green room in May 2017. He's gurning characteristically.
Another man with a contract

So, back to the UK general election of 2024. Why would a party leader want to attach this ‘contract’ idea to his policy programme?

It stands out from the crowd. The contract language quite cleverly opens up some distance from the other parties’ documents. It’s the only set of promises in play that’s not a manifesto, not a dreary document like all the other dreary documents. At his launch, Farage said: “today is not a manifesto launch. If I say to you ‘manifesto’, your immediate word-association is ‘lie’…”

Contracts are for consumers. The idea of a contract is actually a pretty good expression of our relationship with contemporary politics. Electors in the third decade of the 21st Century are not expected to engage with politics – as activists or organised workers or even as enthusiastic private citizens. We’re expected only to consume politics, to rate its quality via occasional elections and sometimes to switch brands, in the same way we switch gas providers or mobile phones. Meanwhile, political movements are over, replaced by narrowly-focused campaign groups. Incidentally, this explains why we feel so disempowered and disconnected from politics, why so many people say “they’re all the same…” – the politicians like it that way.

Businesses love contracts. Reform UK is a business. It’s the image they’re looking for. Tice and Farage and Habib have enthusiastically embraced the ‘start-up’ idea. Journos and critics noticed ages ago that Reform UK is not a conventionally incorporated political party. Columnists and social media geniuses thought the revelation that the party is just an ordinary limited company would be an absolutely killer gotcha. “Look, it’s not a political party, it’s a scam!” Of course it made no difference at all. Nobody cares. Limited companies are famously easy to set up in Britain. It costs £50 and takes less than 24 hours. The fact that the simplest and most robust organisational form for this new force in British politics was actually an off-the-shelf company really does suit the project. A disruptive, entrepreneurial enterprise like Reform probably ought to be a business and not a fusty old not-for-profit.

Chaos suits Reform

Reform UK wasn’t ready for the election when Sunak announced it but that’s fine – it’s a start-up – the rag-tag Reform team mobilised resources with the ‘fuck you’ energy of a tech entrepeneur. ‘Move fast and break things’ could almost be their slogan. Hiring and then quickly firing candidates as they’re exposed as racists and lunatics is all part of the energy of an insurgent party. When opponents get excited about the chaos inside the Reform operation they’re profoundly missing the point. That’s how they like it – and, let’s face it, voters seem to like it too.

What’s in this contract?

Next time we’ll look at the content of Reform UK Ltd’s ‘Contract With You‘ and possibly at the policies of their unlikely collaborators, the SDP

Minister for junk mail

Careful, your MP wants your email address


Oliver Dowden, MP for Hertsmere, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and unlikely attack dog in the Culture Wars, has a new, slightly demeaning job. He’s been tasked with adding names to the Conservative Party’s email marketing list. He’s doing this by attacking some Labour politicians for supporting the RMT’s strike action. Nothing new about attacking organised labour, of course, but Dowden’s approach is unusual and quite possibly unprecedented – he’s started a petition which will apparently be delivered to the opposition Labour party.

The eccentricity of this approach: a governing party – and one with a 75-seat majority in the House of Commons – petitioning the party that is currently out of power for action in an industrial dispute – will not have escaped you. But the oddball logic will become clear if you actually try to complete the petition. It’s a fake petition. You’ll find that, although you’re offered two options (condemn the strikes, don’t condemn the strikes), whichever way you vote you’ll be required to provide an email address and agree to receive email ‘about the Party’s campaigns and opportunities to get involved’. Boom, you’re on the list.

This kind of data collection mechanic disguised as a campaign has, as you’d expect, been imported from US politics, where Donald Trump and others have been building huge email and telephone databases and surveilling voters via similar devices for years. In this country, political parties are governed by data protection regulations just like other organisations and this petition looks legit but you may want to take your usual precautions against the kind of epic quantities of spam that political parties routinely produce.

Top tip: if you have one, use a special email address when you’re obliged to sign up for junk mail in this way – we have one which deletes all email before we even see it.

And don’t forget that the Conservatives have form when it comes to dodgy online marketing. There was that time they broke Twitter’s rules by pretending to be a ‘fact checking’ organisation and that other time when they were fined £10,000 for breaking data protection law.

Of course, whether it’s a dignified thing for a prominent politician – one who until not long ago was an actual Minister of the Crown (he was replaced by Nadine Dorries) – to be grubbing around for qualified leads for the party’s junk mail department is another matter – one we’ll leave to Mr Dowden’s conscience.

If you’d like to sign it, the ‘Stop the Strikes’ petition is on the Conservative Party web site. The Information Commissioner has detailed guidance for the use of personal data by political parties.

Standing room-only for anti-incinerator meeting

The WING group's anti-incinerator public meeting at the Radlett Centre on 24 March 2011

UPDATE: I’ve added details of the campaign’s Twitter account.

The Radlett Centre was full to the doors for last night’s public meeting. And the WING anti-incinerator group‘s formidable package of information and political organisation went down well with the assembled crowd. The campaign has evident clout – what other campaign could attract two local MPs to a public meeting affecting constituents of only one? (correction: a comment points out the the Harper Lane site is actually in the constituency of Anne Main so this is clearly the concern of both MPs). Both spoke strongly against the scheme, questioning the legality of the local authority’s process as well as the usefulness of the scheme and its potential impact on the village. Calls from the floor for disclosure of the contact details of all the Hertfordshire councillors involved in the decision met with raucous approval. As did the suggestion that those of us who buy our electricity from E.ON, the Radlett scheme’s sponsor, should switch to another supplier.

There is much anger about the incinerator – at least amongst those represented in the room. But it’s not clear how much opposition there is in the wider community for a scheme that, if built, will occupy a former aggregate yard a mile from the village. If I were a councillor on the relevant committee I’d have my tin hat at the ready right now.

The WING group has a Facebook page and a blog and is on Twitter. The organisers are cleverly mobilising environmental opposition to incinerators in general for the campaign – there are plenty of useful links on the blog. There doesn’t seem to be a hashtag for the campaign yet but I’m sure one will emerge.