January 3, 2024 - 12:35pm

Change was the theme of Richard Tice’s speech this morning welcoming the election year for Reform UK, yet much of his message was the same as that which failed to land last year. Reform’s leader tried to position his party as an alternative to Labour and Tory stagnation, the change that the country is looking for. It remains to be seen if anyone is listening. 

Tice’s speech was bullish on the party’s chances. He pledged to run candidates in every seat in the general election, promising that nearly 500 were already selected and allocated. The coming election, he set out, was about “smashing the Tories” and offering an alternative to Labour. In particular, he warned the Right of the Conservative Party that there would be no non-aggression pacts when it came to standing candidates. 

On policy, Tice set out Reform’s stall as an alternative to the big, “socialist” style of government offered by both main parties. Reform’s manifesto pledges involve raising the threshold for income tax to £20,000, cutting “wasteful” Government spending by 5%, slashing immigration, cutting EU red tape and abandoning Net Zero. It was a pitch framed against the high spending and taxation of Sunak and the “catastrophic cocktail” of “Starmageddon”. 

Yet this approach involves the same mistakes which have seen Reform fail to capitalise on Tory weaknesses already. The party’s economic Thatcherism is largely at odds with the voters it is trying to chase. Brexit success and Tory wins in the Red Wall were based on the sort of voters who like Government intervention, rather than oppose it. They are often dependent on state services and support big spending, while remaining too low-income to pay much tax. 

These issues hold especially true if the party is attempting to target Labour voters as much as disillusioned Tories. Tice said nothing of the NHS in his announcements, ignoring the problem of growing waiting lists. There was no comment on education spending or other aspects of the failing state. If he was trying to tempt voters who might be Labour-curious, but unconvinced about Keir Starmer, it was a curious pitch to swerve. 

Reform appear to be still chasing voters it doesn’t fully understand. The red meat on offer is purely Tory in its flavour, with freshly unveiled Wellingborough candidate Ben Habib using his speech to praise Thatcher. This again ignores the very dynamics of the Red Wall, where it was the legacy of the Eighties which stopped many voting Tory until Brexit came along. Equally, Tice’s party ignores the realities of Boris Johnson’s landslide-gaining manifesto, which along with leaving the EU was a rejection of recent Tory economics, with pledges to spend more and limited promises on taxation. 

Really, Reform and the populist Right are stuck with many of the same problems as the Tories. They have failed to connect to the electorate beyond Brexit, conjuring up a caricature of voters driven by assumption rather than data. After Tice’s speech, it is unclear why any new converts would flock to his party and where the appetite for “libertarian on everything but immigration” politics is. Reform has also failed to find an answer to the conundrum that, on present polling, the better it does, the more empowered a Starmer government would be, with votes taken from the Tories allowing Labour candidates to sneak through the middle in numerous seats. 

Tice’s launch made clear he wanted to smash the Tories. Yet the Conservatives have arguably done that to themselves, and Labour will be the electoral winners. Reform might pick at the carcass — but without a smarter, more inventive offering tailored to the votes it needs, the party is unlikely to come away with much. In 2024, we can expect Reform to make a lot of noise, but to again fall on deaf electoral ears. The change it craves is unlikely to come.

John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.