Reform - a nothing burger?

May 13, 2024By Pete North


Added Saturday May 18th 20:00

Tice has a curious attitude to Ukip because Ukip is closer to where the right's activist base is. He needs them. Understandably, Ukip doesn't want to dismantle its grassroots infrastructure to merge with a private limited company, and they're right not to back a party with such a flaccid immigration policy. 

The solution, therefore, is for Reform to stiffen immigration policy, and to relaunch with an elected NEC and a party constitution to give members an active role in the direction of the party. Two seats on the NEC could even be offered to the Ukip leadership as a precursor to a merger. 

I doubt this would happen, mind you, because Ukip is a bit too Ukippy for Tice. But then that begs the question, if Reform isn't prepared to be a bit Ukippy, what is the point of it? 

Right now it's presenting as a generic populist protest-vote dustbin rather than a movement. It cannot survive without a fundamental purpose, especially if its positions are only marginally to the right of whatever is salvaged from the wreckage of the Tory party. I would like for Reform to shape up and get with the programme, but at the moment, I'm struggling to see it as anything other than a distracting nuisance.

Uninspired and uninspiring

In recent weeks, I've criticised the Reform Party for its lack of an intellectual foundation. There are several problems with the party, but most of them stem from not having a philosophical definition. Consequently, there is no framework for its policies. It actually has no policies to speak of. It just has crowd-pleasing tropes with no detail, none of which get anywhere near fixing the problems at source.

Then there's the Tice problem. Frankly, he's not up to it. He's a poor media performer, he's not especially compelling, and he's easily wrong-footed. But because Reform has few other sources of income, they're stuck with him. And that's a problem. Reform will struggle to attract major donors if it cannot demonstrate organic growth and polling momentum, and it can't manage either with ineffectual leadership, no intellectual foundation, and no grassroots organisation to speak of. It's a party on paper, but it's not a movement.

The party also lacks a clear strategy. Tice believes the mission is to destroy the Tory party; but the impact of Reform is muted by the Gaza effect on Labour. Moreover, they're deceiving themselves if they think they're the automatic beneficiary of the Tory implosion. The Blackpool South by-election results are troubling for Reform. Reform is failing to inspire. 

At the beginning of this line of enquiry, I believed these problems could be fixed. But for the problem to be addressed, the leadership has to recognise that there is a problem. The leadership currently refutes the suggestion there is no intellectual foundation, and denies that its policies are populist tropes. 

Certainly there is an intellectual framework for Ben Habib's thinking, but there is no evidence of this on the Reform website. That suggests to me that the website is an afterthought, which suggests no thought has gone into communications strategy. 

If I was a voter visiting the website to give Reform a second look, I would conclude that Reform was an amateurish populist party that will say anything for popularity, and has no understanding of the scale, complexity and urgency of the problems. It is a party called Reform, but does not offer a reform prospectus. Nothing on the website points to an overhaul of governance.

As such, Reform risks being left behind. There is still a gap in the market for a new movement on the right, but Reform is not entitled to those votes. They could just as easily go somewhere else. It seems that Cummings and Goodwin are lining up to launch something. That will soak up enormous political and media attention - and votes. Both figures (for reasons that escape me) are regarded as heavyweights. 

There's a lot of debate happening on the right as to what should be the intellectual underpinnings of a new movement. It's forming up on the lines of National Conservatism. It’s a fully fleshed out ideology with policies that suggest themselves. Nick Timothy has been advancing policy ideas through his Telegraph column, and debate on immigration is travelling further to the right than the current "net-zero" position outlined by Reform. Debate is now going beyond numbers and is now looking at pro-natalist tax policies, citizenship reform, and cohesion policies.

Essentially, there is an emerging intellectual foundation for a new movement, and if it surfaces, it will leave Reform standing, leaving voters to wonder why it still exists.

I recently wrote a short sketch called Reforming Reform, outlining the basis of an intellectual foundation. The paper I wrote was not merely proposing a democratic reform programme. It was proposing a core mission for the party which sets it apart from any competitor. 

Parliament is the problem

The issue for me is illustrated quite well in a recent speech given by Dr David Starkey to the New Culture Forum. He talks about a restoration centred on the sovereignty of parliament. He argued that Brexit has failed to "take back control" because powers are now divested to quangos, treaties, devolved assemblies and courts etc. What he fails to note is that Parliament did all this to us in the first place. Parliament is the problem. There are no constraints on parliament giving away powers that are not theirs to give away.

Consequently, we need something declarative in nature, that the people are sovereign, and that anything that dilutes the sovereignty of the people, or in any way compels or mutes their parliament must, at the very least, be subject to a referendum. A People's Sovereignty Act, if you like. 

In effect, what we need is something that stands above parliament and enshrines the sovereign rights of the people as the ultimate authority. That inevitably leads to the abolition of the Supreme Court, which would take on a subordinate role as a constitutional court, with its powers heavily constrained by a constitution.

Every malevolent anti-democratic act of the last thirty years has been done to us without our consent, because there are no real controls on what they do between elections, and our general elections are a wholly inadequate means of holding our politicians to account. We need further democratic reforms, not least so we don't have a long succession of unelected and unwanted prime ministers. Tinkering with the voting system doesn't even begin to address the democratic deficit.

Such reforms are essential because most of the key problems we have are downstream of decisions taken to bind parliament to obsolete conventions, treaties and arbitrary international targets. 

Habib, among others, is hesitant about a written constitution, and suggests such a proposal would be vulnerable to ridicule. To which I say… so what? Ukip’s policy of leaving the EU was the subject of ridicule. We didn’t care because we knew it was the right thing to do, and that the public would eventually come to our side if we kept making the arguments.

That’s what a political movement is supposed to do. You set out your ideas and ambitions, and you go out and argue them. You start the debates, and you win them. You are better able to do this if you actually have fully fleshed out policies. Policies have to reflect core values, and not simply plucked from the ether because they are crowd pleasers.

I take the view that Reform should be leading the debate by advancing innovative and detailed policies that demonstrate the paucity of thinking in the establishment parties. Though key messaging must be simple and policies must connect with the aspirations of voters, messaging must also be strategic, and consistent with the intellectual foundation. Policies should be instruments designed to deliver your explicitly defined vision.

You can hang on to your share of the vote with populist tropes, but to grow, you need to establish credibility and competence. You have to convince opinion formers in the media (and on social media) that you have the ideas, and the knowledge to pull it off. Independent right wing media critics do not presently speak well of Reform - and that's bad news because they're speaking directly to Reform's potential activist base. 

I suspect at this point that voters have already made their minds up about Reform, and if Reform wants to survive it needs a rethink and a relaunch. It should be formulating a twenty-year plan. 

In that time, it will find itself up against a renewed conservative movement forged from the wreckage of the Tory party, and it will enjoy more insider status. It will be robustly conservative and tick many of the boxes voters are looking at. However, it will stop short of the kind of radicalism Britain needs. It may commit to quitting the ECHR and limiting immigration (along the lines of the Jenrick report), but it won't be enough. We still need something like Reform in the game to hold their feet to the fire. To that end, it needs to be more original and more radical.  

This analysis is the result of close scrutiny of Reform over a while now. I think the cracks are beginning to show. Unless Reform can regain the confidence of  its natural supporters, it probably won’t exist in five years time. There’s a lot of work ahead if it is to survive.

There is a difference between a political party and a movement. Right now Reform is a political party bidding to lead a fragmented movement. The movement is split between the Tories, the SDP, remnant Ukip, and half a dozen nativist crank parties. A political party is the delivery mechanism for the hopes and aspirations of that movement. The party that wins their loyalty is the one that can present as the best hope of realising those aspirations. It must prove it has the vision, the ideas, the competence and the credibility to deliver.

I recall back in 1997 volunteering for the local branch of the Referendum Party. Nothing that was achieved could have happened without Jimmy Goldsmith, but the RP wouldn’t have got anywhere without people throughout the land pounding the pavements. I remember our branch was a close knit team. We became good friends and we enjoyed what we did together, and we were proud of what we were doing. It is that energy, conviction and dedication a party must inspire. That is how the Labour movement came to power. That is how Ukip secured a referendum.

The difference is that these were movements built at the local level, backed by a competent national campaigning organisation with a core mission that its members believed in. If you don’t have that, you are nowhere. 

As such, if we do not see major changes from Reform it will become part of the problem.

Yet another noisemaker that does nothing useful with the exposure afforded it. If the leadership thinks all is well, and there is no problem to address, then we should give it up as a bad job. If the response to criticism is defensiveness and denial, it will not learn from mistakes, and will keep repeating them. The rest of us can't afford to waste energy on it. aims to provide efficient and common sense government without the millstone of dogmatic politics