GE24 Party Profile: Reform UK(IP)


Last but not least for this series of party profiles, the not-quite-new kids on the block, Reform UK. Although this is the first time they’ll be on a General Election ballot under that name, they aren’t really a “new” party, having contested the 2019 election under their old name of the Brexit Party. Even then they simply represent an effective re-founding of UKIP, which had fallen to bits after the 2016 EU referendum delivered on their raison d’être.

When Brexit looked like it might be under threat in 2019, Nigel Farage decided it would be a lot better to get a fresh start than to try and re-take the reins of his shattered party, on its fourth leader since his departure. Having won the most votes in the final, somewhat unexpected, 2019 EU elections, the then-Brexit Party briefly enjoyed a surge in polling, which evaporated as the election neared.

Keen to ensure that Brexit itself wasn’t derailed at the last minute, they made a unilateral decision not to stand in any Conservative-held seats, to give as clear a run as possible for Boris Johnson to Get Brexit Done. For a time after that it appeared they would follow UKIP into the history books, for example only receiving a dire 0.2% of the vote at the 2021 Scottish Parliament election despite being led locally by a defecting Conservative MSP.

They’ve since catapulted themselves back into the limelight, not least with Nigel Farage resuming leadership of the party and standing for election in Clacton. Although overall polling continues to show the Conservatives ahead, support has increased and at time of writing there has been one “crossover” poll putting Reform UK second at UK level. Yet in Scotland there has never been as much of a market for options to the right of the Conservatives, so what might their impact up here be?


Seats Contested

As Reform UK are the spiritual heirs to UKIP, I think it’s reasonable to use UKIP as a comparative baseline for earlier elections. Similar to the Greens, UKIP typically only had a relatively limited number of candidates up for election. They started this period with a bit over a third in 2005, and then just shy of half in 2010. 

In line with 2015 being their big breakthrough year, that represented the peak of UKIP presence in Scotland, contesting over two-thirds of the seats up here. Similar to other smaller parties they were caught off guard by the snap 2017 election, not least because that was when they were organisationally collapsing, and dropped down to 10 candidates. 

When the next snap rolled around in 2019, UKIP and the new Brexit Party were competing for the same pool of voters. Or at least, they would have been, had they had any overlaps in where they stood candidates. In Scotland at least they didn’t, which is very convenient for the purposes of this piece, standing in a total of 22 seats, split roughly 2:1 between Brexit and UKIP. That was an increase over 2017, yes, but only gave them a combined tally on a par with 2005.

This time around, they are standing in every constituency in Scotland, the only party apart from the Westminster Four to do so. When they initially announced this was their plan, I was actually a touch sceptical, given their complete lack of presence and organisation up here – they hadn’t, for example, stood a single candidate for the 2022 local elections. Fair play to them that they managed to do so, but only by parachuting 8 candidates in from England.

Non-local candidates aren’t entirely unheard of, but when for example the Lib Dems do it (see the Edinburgh resident candidates in seats across Ayrshire and Lanarkshire) they are at least based in Scotland. Similarly speaking to a certain degree of organisational difficulty, there are also a few “mismatched pairs”, where candidates are resident in one seat and standing in the other. Given none of them are in it to win it, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t match what candidates you had to their own seats where possible, just to squeeze an extra dozen votes out of people who dislike non-local candidates.

Vote Shares

Similar to the Greens, as UKIP have never won a seat in Scotland, we’re only look at votes for them, and doing so both in terms of their overall national share plus what they got across the seats they contested. The first three points here tell a natural and unsurprising story of growth, with consistent increases between elections.

What’s really notable about this though is how much weaker they were here compared to their overall UK performance. Even in the seats they contested here in 2010, they only won 1.4% compared to 3.5% in England. The difference was even more stark in 2015, when their Scottish 2.3% in contested seats compared to 14.1% of the vote in England.

It becomes harder to compare after that due to the limited contest rates and the party’s collapse, but in 2019 their vote in seats contested in Scotland matched their share overall in England, which given they contested fewer than half of seats down South again compares poorly. If you look at areas in the north of England that had very high rates of Brexit Party candidates due to having very few Conservative MPs, they were very comfortably holding their deposit in most seats.

At time of writing, the BBS poll average for Reform (last updated on the 10th of June) was 4.1%, representing an septupling of the combined UKIP-Brexit vote compared to 2019. This is however an incomplete picture, due to their limited slate of candidates in 2019 and because not all polls break Reform UK out separately. Their “real” 2019 share would thus be somewhat higher, though it’s not possible to say exactly how much, whilst their current average includes a degree of extrapolating “missing” figures for the relevant polls.

Possible Outcomes

Note: Obviously, your personal perception of a good or bad result will depend on how much you like a given party. For the purposes of this piece, good and bad relate to how an impartial observer might view the result, taking into account other elections and the general situation facing that party. They are not a commentary on whether such results would be good or bad for the country.

Good Result

Reform UK are neither going to win any seats in Scotland nor come anywhere near to the support they’ll get in England, so a good result here is going to be relative to a history of under-performance of further-right parties. Bearing in mind their full slate and the general state of polling, a good result is probably to get at least 3% of the vote, and hold their deposit in a few of the most Conservative seats in Scotland. A really good result would be to get at least 4%, and a spectacular performance would see them cross 5% nationally.

They may also consider it to be a good result if their presence knocks out a few Conservative MPs. In particular, given the Greens aren’t standing in the Aberdeenshire North and Moray West seat that outgoing Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross is contesting, the risk of “vote splitting” will impact them but not the SNP. If that ends up so tight it’s Reform UK that made the difference, they might consider that a job well done as part of their clear desire to make life difficult for the Conservatives this year.

Bad Result

Again, emphasising that we can’t expect Reform UK to perform as well in Scotland as in England, it’s fair to set lower expectations for them here. If they couldn’t get at least 3%, they’d be an extremely poor showing for a party standing in absolutely every constituency. Also, if they weren’t able to beat the Greens in total share, despite fewer Green candidates and much less media attention on the latter, that might look a shade embarrassing.

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