Should the Tories be worried by Reform – and Labour by the Greens?

Last time it didn’t matter; next time it might matter a lot. The best analysis of the 2019 election result found that the Brexit Party cost the Conservatives 25 seats. However, as Boris Johnson’s majority was 80 without those seats, the Brexit Party, which won no seats of its own, failed to achieve Nigel Farage’s ambition of holding the balance of power.

A similar impact next time by Reform UK—the Brexit Party’s successor—could matter a lot. It is currently averaging 6 per cent in the polls. On the other side of the political fence the Greens enjoy around the same support. Between them, the two parties would win more than three million votes if an election were held today. Whenever the next election is held, the two parties are unlikely to add to the single seat they represent in the current parliament—Brighton Pavilion, where the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, enjoys a majority of almost 20,000. But could they deflect enough votes from other parties at the next election to affect who ends up governing Britain?

Take Reform first. Its leader, Richard Tice, told the Financial Times that it plans to stand in every seat except Northern Ireland. This is a change from last time, when the Brexit Party stood aside in seats that the Tories were defending. However, by contesting almost every Labour seat, they reduced the swing to the Conservatives; hence the estimate of the 25 seats that the Tories would have won had the Brexit party stood aside.

Tice defends his decision to fight every seat next time, blaming the government’s record: “We stood aside for [the Conservatives] and did the right thing in 2019, they had their chance… they have blown it, they have messed up.” No wonder many Conservative MPs are worried. But I am not sure they should be. Unless something extraordinary happens (and after the events at home and abroad over the past 12 months, we would be unwise to rule that out), there will be a clear swing at the next election from Conservative to Labour—the opposite to what happened in 2019. Three years ago, a large part of the Brexit Party’s impact was to intercept voters on their journey from Labour to Tory. 

Next time, given that the swing is almost certain to be to Labour, we could see the opposite effect. Reform is certain to attract people who lost faith in the Conservatives and have no intention of voting for them again. But who would they support instead? Reform could give them an alternative non-Tory option to Labour. Instead of interrupting the shift from Labour to Conservatives, as last time, might it intercept the shift next time in the opposite direction—and so help rather than hurt the Tories in some closely-fought marginals?

Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 provides the most useful lesson from history. Two anti-EU parties—Ukip and James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party—won 3 per cent of the vote overall. However, analysis of voting patterns finds that the bigger the anti-EU vote, the smaller the swing from Conservative to Labour. The difference was not great: very few seats produced a different winner because of the intervention of Ukip and/or the Referendum Party. But what happened 26 years ago suggests that next time the verdict on Reform’s performance might be the same as that of Ukip and the Referendum Party: “not so much a cause of the Conservatives’ difficulties as a symptom”.

What about the Greens? Their best general election performance was in 2015, when they won more than one million votes: 4 per cent, up from 1 per cent in 2010. Leaving aside the special case of Caroline Lucas, who has built a big personal following since her first victory in Brighton in 2010, the Greens gained most in a particular type of seat where Labour has also done increasingly well in recent elections: city constituencies with large student populations.

This suggests that in some parts of Britain, Greens and Labour (and in some places the Liberal Democrats) are fishing for voters in the same pool, typically graduates under 30. This could be relevant at the next election, if pro-EU voters decide to vote Green in marginal constituencies, because they are unhappy with Labour’s cautious stance on Brexit.

The conclusion to all this is less clear cut than I would like. We cannot be certain what the impact of Reform and the Greens will be at the next election. But given that a hung parliament is a real prospect, we may enter a period when (as during the Brexit debates between 2017 and 2019), even a small impact in seats could have a big impact on how much power the government will have after the next election and how long it can last. The appeal of Reform and the Greens will be well worth monitoring in the months ahead.

This blog was first published by Prospect