Nigel Farage might not be every City worker’s favourite person at the moment. But the City might look back on Farage’s time as leader with fondness – because there is a real prospect that Ukip’s leadership election will herald the birth of Britain’s first truly populist party.
Ex-commodities broker Farage was at heart a pro-business Thatcherite. He talked with affection about his time in the City. He believed in a small state, low taxes, free trade and less regulation. He helped form Ukip in his own image: essentially a Southern English party of disgruntled right-wing Tories.
But as the referendum indicated, the party Farage leaves is one that has its power base in the North of England – and one that appears to be moving aggressively towards becoming a party for patriotic, working class former Labour voters.
This shift looks set to be confirmed if Paul Nuttall takes over. The Liverpuddlian is well liked across the party and is an excellent TV performer with an air of provincial English common sense. He does not look or sound like a politician – he looks and sounds like an ordinary person.
Nuttall champions working class communities and ridicules metropolitan values. He talks about people on low wages, the cost of living, jobs for post-industrial communities, small businesses and better public services. He makes it clear he does not worry about big business. He is self-consciously patriotic. This is classic populism – defying labels of “right” or “left” (which many voters also reject).
From Ukip’s perspective, Nuttall looks the best choice. But other candidates, like Steven Woolfe, will likely continue Ukip’s Northern pivot.
The EU referendum does not end Ukip. Labour’s shift to the radical left opens up a massive gap in the market. Looking at the opinion research, it’s hard to conclude anything other than the fact that a more populist party could appeal to something like a fifth of the electorate.
To date, eccentricity and incompetence have prevented the party from exploiting its potential with these voters – and may still again, of course. But a large populist party would shift the balance of power in politics and exert pressure on the government.
For some businesses, a new populist party would be irrelevant, and might in fact be secretly welcomed at times. A populist party would be a loud voice against lifestyle taxes. But for other businesses, it will be a worrying development.
Such a populist party might, for example, take a very different view on executive pay, bonuses, shareholder rights and corporation tax. The so-called “undeserving rich” and City firms and major corporations are an obvious target.
I will be exploring what can be done in future columns. But, as I have suggested before on these pages, big businesses and City businesses in particular need to make people think differently about them. At the minute these businesses are seen as entirely “London” – and, for many, not worth worrying about.
It would go a long way if these firms could show they have a local, provincial English presence – that they are part of the fabric of the wider “real” economy. Many of them are; they need to talk about it.