Why the Liberal Democrats must learn from Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage is the embodiment of everything I disagree with in politics. But rather than stopping at the mild nausea he evokes in most of us, we would be more sensible to leave emotions aside and discover why this man has given us such a clobbering in recent years, and what we can learn from it.

And he has given us one hell of a clobbering.

Brexit aside – he is one of the main external factors in why we did so badly in December. Unscientific, but if you take the Brexit party’s result in Brecon, and apply it to every Lib Dem/Tory fight in the 2019 election, one decision from him cost us between 9 and 26 seats.

And he is gearing up for his next campaign already, with his much-publicised “illegals” hunting in Dover during lock down. In his own words this may evolve into a broader campaign for a new ‘reform party’ including parking his tanks on some of our lawns, voter reform, drug legalisation, and combining them with his more usual nationalistic tropes.

Conversely this means he may end up being an uncomfortable fellow traveller in fights to come, as awful as that may seem to some people.

So what are the lessons?

  1. Be a voice crying in the desert. The easiest way to neuter Nigel Farage would be to give him a job. Put in charge of executing Brexit, as he claimed he wanted, his angry man in a bar rhetoric would quickly collide at 200 mph with the concrete wall of reality, leaving nothing but a red wine stain and the whiff of Rothmans. But we live in this country with our ludicrous political system, so he has evaded reality, instead evolving into a Fox & Friends style media personality, reinforcing his hold on certain parts of the national psyche. Of course, the flip side of this is why isn’t there an ‘outsider’ liberal campaigner who has learnt how to shout loudly and effectively about what’s important to us? Despite the decried ‘liberal bias’ in our media I see no equivalent liberal that remotely has his impact.
  2. Understanding the two kinds of truth. There are two kinds of truths in this world, those of fact and those of feeling, and both are equally important. In wars for hearts and minds, the heart is often the more important ground to take. We got badly mauled by not understanding this with Nigel Farage. He very effectively appealed to people’s hearts with content light emotional campaigns about independence, immigration and culture. When we countered with facts, we were surprised when they were ignored in favour of feelings. To illustrate can anyone remember a single effective emotional appeal to the British people why Remain was a patriotic cause? …Thought not.
  3. Be Proactive. One of the problems from day one with Brexit is we were fighting a reactive campaign where they were on the front foot. Farage defined the arguments and we merely responded to them. We need to go on the offensive against the populists, on terrain of our choosing, but terrain that we know is at the heart of what the country finds important. There are several that spring to mind, Climate Change, Care, the NHS and so on, where we can create campaigns putting the populists on the defensive. We need to go on the attack!

I don’t like him, and I don’t agree with him. But if we want to have the most powerful liberal voice in the UK, we may need to do a better job at understanding how he operates, and why he has been such a potent enemy.

* After years living in Greater China, Charlie has recently returned to the UK, and is both a Lib Dem activist and businessman.

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  • Douglas beckley 21st May '20 - 11:52am

    ‘When we countered with facts’

    An opportunist – classic example, as you say, Farage – can only prosper from opportunism if the leeway is presented to him.

    If you want to take on the thorny subject of ‘Immigration’ you’re only countering half the argument with ‘facts’. It’s a plain fact that on the shores of France, people traffickers are turning a criminal enterprise into a putative industry. Twitter this morning, for example is making claims that the French Navy ‘escorted’ a boat load of illegal immigrants into UK waters with deliberate intent. This same boat, allegedly, was ‘rescued’ by UK assets in plain sight of the French vessel. The footage seems to illustrate that.

    This account may be plain rubbish. However, on balance it seems credible given the evidence and if it is found to be true, this is the opportunity presented to the opportunist. The LibDems may be empathic and concerned but you also need to occupy the ground of calling out unacceptable criminal behaviour when it manifests itself in plain sight. The UK rightly has a historic record of accepting genuine Refugees. In particular I feel we’ve underachieved in giving safe places to people fleeing the Conflict in Syria.

    However, when headlines make claims that people are being ‘rescued’ from France. That people are ‘escaping’ from France, you need to shut down that territory, and not present it as a gift to the opportunist. You need to address all the debate. Not solely the bits you prefer. The UK taxpayer is extremely welcoming of the genuinely vulnerable. But don’t take them for mugs. They’ll punish you for it at the ballot box.

  • The lesson is the Liberal Democrats must be for the little man and woman. We have increasingly lost touch with many ordinary people.

  • John Littler 21st May '20 - 5:47pm

    There is a crunch point coming in UK politics outside of Corona. The government have continually insisted that it will get the something for nothing deal with the EU, where trade continues as it is, the Uk decides it’s own fate with no EU courts, nothing to pay and a USA trade deal beckons from around the corner, where they will then be able to mass produce and ship us cheap, now unprotected “Cornish Pasties”

    When it become fully apparent that this fantasy was just obscuring more losses in trade, way higher costs, and losses in power and influence, while the bureaucracies and hassles pile up from leaving. Just how will the now largely sleeping Farage play this?

    My guess is that Farage will use the forthcoming brexi-failures to take potshots at the Tories and attempt to steal their votes again. Without an English PR election to express the issue in after leaving the EU Parliament it will be difficult to see what he might win?

    Since Farage won’t be joining any Progressive Alliance in this universe, perhaps the most we might hope for is that Farage gets the issue of votes reform into the Mail/.Express/Sun readership and siphons off enough Tory votes to enable a possible Progress Alliance to come through the middle in 4 years? Any better suggestions?

  • He taps into the anti-establishment vote that has deserted us due to being a party of government and our support for the political project that is the EU.

    If anything Farage highlights flaws within our democratic system, he’s a skilled egotist who can weave together a loose coalition of protest votes against vague issues like “immigration” and “political correctness”. His political endeavors immediately crumble once he has left them as they have no ideological grounding or cohesion.

    I suspect without Farage we would not have left the EU. He’s the political equivalent of the used car salesman. His party never went past a handful of bye-election victories despite taking a big national vote share because it was made up of individual protest voters dotted all over the country.

    Yet he didn’t need to win more than a few seats because all he needed to do was frighten the Conservatives a bit and they gave him 1000% times more than Nick Clegg ever got while he faced none of the political accountability of government.

    All Farage has to do is be performatively anti-establishment and he has a legion of followers and the ear of the mainstream media which enable him to get his simple-but-wrong message across.

  • Oh another thing, I suspect he learned a lot from Nick Griffin. Another man who made a successful political career for himself.

  • The closest thing to an anti-Farage is Caroline Lucas and the Greens.

  • If you regard being a climate change denier, a holocaust denier, being banned from an EU country as a ‘security threat’, and then being a bankrupt as the necessary ingredients for a successful political career then you really ought to go for a lie down in a darkened room.

  • John Marriott 21st May '20 - 10:25pm

    I seem to remember that someone, when discussing the merits or otherwise of David Owen, asked; “But was he a very good doctor?” Well, similarly, when discussing Nigel Farage, we might ask; “Yes; but was he any good as a commodities trader in the City?”

    One thing the ‘success’ of Nigel does prove that might give comfort to some despairing Lib Dems is that you don’t have to get elected to the House of Commons to have a massive directional impact on the political life of this country.

  • @David Raw

    He got elected an MEP and invited onto public tv, which for a man with his stated views is more successful than I’d have liked. Sorry if it came across like I was giving the man respect which he does not deserve.

    Farage hasn’t reached those depths but he draws the same vote with a veneer of respectability.

  • Excellent article – Thanks.

  • Dilettante Eye 22nd May '20 - 12:51pm

    “We need to go on the offensive against the populists, on terrain of our choosing, “

    Rejecting populism is a rejection of ever learning anything, and is a cul-de-sac of doing the same thing over, and over, and expecting a different result.

  • Charlie you ask why there is no “outsider” liberal campaigners. I suspect the answer is because we are all “too polite”. For example it would have been easy for us to have had a liberal £350m for the NHS during the Brexit campaign. We could have identified that amount of corporation tax being avoided by multinational corporations like Amazon, Starbucks, Facebook, Google and Apple etc and pointed out that if we collected the “fair” tax due we could give it to the NHS. A simple and understandable policy. IMO a liberal one too. All the better when the Tories and Farage opposed us, they could be branded as “backing tax dodging scounger corporations who were robbing us”. The argument then becomes our £350m versus fictious Brexit money. Being this agressive in the brutal way necessary woud have upset many people in our party. They would have argued about the detail. We don’t have any maverick figures who would do it either. But it would have got us noticed and made us relevant. And could have been a way of neutralising a Brexit argument. As others say we never really took Farage on.

  • Charlie Du Cane 22nd May '20 - 8:57pm

    @HughW I think you have hit on alot of key points there. Will we do what it takes to put Liberalism back at the heart of British politics, or would we rather be a comfortable fringe organisation speaking into its own echo-chamber? Politics is a rough trade but if we don’t get serious about this battle who will?

  • John Littler 24th May '20 - 11:00am

    Now Hobhouse is running on an explicit pledge to end that position – to stake out a distinct position on the liberal-left, rather than one of a liberal party that could go either way or a centrist party with liberal elements.

    The party’s debate over its ideological position is also an argument over its electoral strategy. The Liberal Democrats face two problems at elections. The first is that they are not, realistically, going to be able to govern alone; their best-case scenario is a hung parliament, so Liberal Democrat leaders are often asked who they would go into power with.

    The second is that most voters regard the leader of the Labour Party as being the Lib Dems’ preferred choice of governing partner, so if that Labour leader is not popular in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat battleground seats, or worse, if they are actively unpopular, then the Liberal Democrats do badly.

    I’m not saying that the popularity or otherwise of the Liberal Democrat leader isn’t a factor in how the party does in a general election, but there is a good deal of evidence to suggest it is less of a factor than the popularity of the Labour leader. The 2017 election is a pretty good example of that.


    The LibDems have to take a clear position to get away from much of the public view of it as a local or national shape shifter and in the Clegg era, as power opportunists, even if it is not true. Certainly not more true than any other politicians.

    The LibDems are nothing if not of the Liberal Left. Under FPTP, if pushing some extreme free markets line with no popular support for such, it might as well give up and merge, handing over it’s resources to the Tories, whose internal coalition owns extreme free market policy

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