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Just Like Blair: Starmer Empowers the Populist Right

Last Monday in the South Wales town of Merthyr Tydfil, a political storm was brewing. Through a frenzy of flashing cameras and rapturous applause walked the most popular figure in British politics, ready to unveil his policy agenda to a sea of enamoured disciples.

This was not Keir Starmer, whose party is running rampant at the top of the polls and is widely expected to be the next Prime Minister. No, this was for a man who has never even been an MP – Nigel Farage. 

“Guess who's back?” Farage quipped in his hoarse, raspy tone, inviting more adulation from the crowd. In his ensuing speech, he rallied against the political establishment, promised to freeze non-essential immigration and bin net zero targets. 

Love him or loathe him, you simply cannot deny Farage’s popularity. His approval rate of 38% is higher than any other British politician, with Starmer coming in second with 30%. He is perhaps the most influential figure in British politics this century. Yet surprisingly, the rise of Farage and his brand of right wing populism would have been impossible without Labour.

Across Western democracies, populist right wing figures are successfully exploiting the failures of mainstream politics to rise to power in a manner not seen in generations. 

The stakes could not be higher. If an incoming Starmer government doesn’t learn from the mistakes of his hero Tony Blair, he could leave the door open for Reform to take power.

A dominant ideology 

To properly understand the popularity of Farage, we have to start with the dominant political ideology of our times.

Since the 1980s, the UK has been loyally subscribed to neoliberalism. Championed originally by Thatcher, this worldview places the individual at the forefront of society and retracts the state’s responsibility for realising social change. Thatcher famously said poverty was a “personality defect”

This ‘life is what you make of it’ view sees the sole determiner of your position in society as your willingness to work hard – structural factors such as having access to private education, inheriting wealth or getting airdropped into a role at your Dad’s insurance firm are of little significance in Britain – don’t be ridiculous! 

Throw any kind of socio-economic analysis out of the window – if you haven’t got something that someone else does, it’s your fault. Get off your arse and do something about it! 

This idea has pervaded right up to the present day, and this cult of individualism still permeates every strata of our society. It's a worldview that has been adopted by all subsequent governments, including, crucially,  Blair’s New Labour Government of 1997–2007. 

Neoliberalism in practice – inequality

So, neoliberalism/Thatcherism changes how we see ourselves in society. But what has the impact of these ideas been in real terms?

In this sense, it is stark – neoliberalism has made the rich a lot richer. Since the widespread deregulation of the economy and privatisation of public services began in the neoliberal reforms of 1980s, inequality has steadily increased (p20/21), with the richest in Britain earning a higher and higher proportion of the UK’s total income. 

The systematic cull of public services under austerity and the ongoing cost of living crisis has been the salt in the wounds of 40 years of wealth moving upwards. This is not even mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen the scale of inequality grow to dizzying new heights.

Social mobility is now at its worst for 50 years.

The result: anti-politics, anti-immigrant

So at this point, many working people are in a position where; a) They are worse off b) They have been told this has nothing to do with entrenched inequality in society. This causes two phenomena;

1) Anti-politics

Rising inequality and deprivation has created an ever-growing group of people that have been labelled as ‘the left-behinds’. 

This is a group of disaffected people that feel abandoned by the political class, to whom both parties are broadly the same and don’t offer real change. ‘Two cheeks of the same arse’, to put it politely. 

2) Anti-immigrant

Thanks to a dominant neoliberal ideology that refuses to acknowledge that structural factors contribute to deprivation and inequality, a scapegoat is needed. This is where anti-immigrant sentiment arises. 

Why am I not getting a job? Why can’t I get a doctor's appointment? Why is there crime in my town? No, the answer isn’t because communities are underinvested in and our public services are not funded properly. It is because an immigrant has taken your job. Immigrants are clogging up our NHS. Immigrants are committing crime. 

However offensive, inaccurate and hateful these arguments are, they have been allowed to fester by our own politics.  

A political vacuum exploited

This is where the populism of Nigel Farage and his cronies comes along, exploiting and inciting, for their own gain, these anti-political, anti-immigrant sentiments that have developed out of 40 years of neoliberalism.

Farage presents himself as an outsider to the political establishment, and blames immigration for Britain’s problems. He then steps forward as the man to make things right, by stopping immigration and replacing an out of touch, corrupt political elite. 

It is no coincidence that the rise of right-wing populism in the UK came after New Labour’s 13 year stint in government, where they failed to address rising inequality and falling social mobility.

Culminating in the vote to leave the European Union in 2016, Farage and UKIP successfully railed against a homogenous political elite unable to improve Britain, blamed immigrants and promised a brighter future yet to materialise.

This was the pattern that led to Brexit, and it will happen again.

Reform under Farage is now emboldened, and is relishing the opportunity to twist the knife into an already crippled Conservative party. He has his eyes firmly set on becoming the leading figure in opposition, and there are even murmurings of him heading up a new political alliance that subsumes the more hardline figures on the right of the Tory party. 


Labour are approaching election day with a seemingly unassailable lead, but a threat looms beyond. Starmer is unapologetically positioning himself as the heir to Blair, as a centrist who believes in economic orthodoxy. Yet unlike Blair, he is not even suggesting he will make any kind of transformational change to British society. His core strategy seems to be ‘don’t rock the boat’ – but the boat needs rocking. 

Starmer must address the problems of inequality and social mobility in Britain, or he will leave the door open to Nigel Farage – just as Blair did.  


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