Anti-lockdown politics: A successful revival for Farage's right-wing populism?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The recent defeat of Donald Trump, the world-wide most influential politician pursuing an anti-lockdown rhetoric and governmental strategy seems to contradict this trend.”  

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A few days ago, Nigel Farage announced his intention to rebrand the Brexit party as Reform UK, pitching the new formation as being explicitly “an anti-lockdown party”. ‘There is now a political choice on lockdown and we wait to see whether we get a genuine Brexit’, Mr Farage posted on Twitter.

What to expect from this strategical turn? It could be argued that, thanks to this choice, this will result in the political resurrection of the most influential extra-Westminster politician in the last fifteen years. On the opposite, Reform UK may even blow over as a bubble once the Covid-19 most acute critical phase will be over. More generally, as the opposition to lockdown measures is a common position with other right-wing populist leaders such as Donald Trump in the USA and Matteo Salvini in Italy, may this evolution signal broader implications for the future of political competition in the global North?

Mr Farage seems willing to revive his formerly successful strategy on Brexit. Since the late 1990s, he succeeded at taking up the increasingly popular political space of Euroscepticism, and after becoming leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in 2006, he widened the party’s strategy from a single-issue one towards a project of the people against the elite. Despite failing at breaking-up the longstanding British two-party system, Mr. Farage’s strategy worked out at putting a consistent pressure on major parties towards the decision of holding a referendum on EU permanency, especially after UKIP won 2014 European elections as the first party. Afterwards, in an attempt to unify all varied constituencies of leavers, Mr. Farage re-packaged a nationalist populist political front by establishing the Brexit Party, opening its bid to all those Eurosceptic voters who were not impressed by UKIP’s far-right stands. Brexit Party was once again the most voted party in 2019 European elections. An outstanding success that however also proved to be the cause of Mr. Farage’s political crisis. Indeed, while his role as MEP provided financial and political resources to keep traction on British politics, now that the United Kingdom is out of European institutions Mr. Farage is lacking an important source of institutional power.

On the one hand, it may be expected that this anti-lockdown strategy may prepare the path for new successes. Indeed, Farage  currently sees the increasing popular discontent towards PM Johnson’s measures to contrast the spread of Covid-19 as a golden opportunity. Therefore, this should be understood as a short-term strategy to re-set an anchor point and gain traction over the popular classes majorly affected by anti-Covid19 restrictions, placing Mr. Farage to the forefront of a renewed right-wing populist project should the leadership of Boris Johnson undergo an irreversible crisis. On the other hand, the short-termism of an anti-lockdown strategy may prove to be based on frail roots. In this scenario, mainstream parties may succeed at presenting themselves as the national heroes terminating the health crisis and managing to boost a quick recover of national economy.

Although it is hard to foresee the outcomes of this strategy, two impacts may be hypothesized even beyond the boundaries of national British politics. First, anti-lockdown parties and leaders all around the global North may be able to influence their political opponents, especially governing parties, at adopting softer approaches towards the health crisis. Delays and uncertainties of most European governments at setting-up circuit breakers for Covid-19 second wave may be read as a confirmation of this trend, seeing them as an attempt by incumbent leaders to contain losses of consent due to the anti-lockdown protests. Second, if ‘anti-lockdown’ stances will gain traction in the next months, they may pave the way to further reinforce right-wing populism beyond the pandemic, especially if negative impacts on economy will last in the long run. This may result in the ongoing trend of populist leaders gaining weight within mainstream parties, or in an increasing relevance of new right-wing populist movements. The recent defeat of Donald Trump, the world-wide most influential politician pursuing an anti-lockdown rhetoric and governmental strategy seems to contradict this trend. Although we cannot yet establish affordable correlations between the dramatic impacts of the Covid-19 crisis and Biden’s victory, Trump’s defeat may signal the flaws of stances against tough restrictions, especially when taken by incumbent forces. However, Trump’s denial of his defeat and his constant recall of Biden’s goal to set-up a ‘prison-state’ in the next month, may also serve the strategical goal to keep high the political polarization around the Covid-19 crisis, facilitating Trump’s political survival as the champion of anti-lockdown stances, should the new government struggle at pursuing stricter measures.

Overall, in this scenario, the adoption of over-simplified and anti-scientific messages by populist leaders may even further weaken politics’ ability at facing the increasing complexity of our societies, which Covid-19 crisis made just more evident.

Homepage image credit: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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