Reform’s split of right-leaning vote could prove devastating for Tories

<span>Voters choosing Nigel Farage’s Reform UK are disillusioned with the government and unlikely to vote tactically for Tories to keep out Labour.</span><span>Photograph: James Manning/PA</span>
Voters choosing Nigel Farage’s Reform UK are disillusioned with the government and unlikely to vote tactically for Tories to keep out Labour.Photograph: James Manning/PA

We have just passed the halfway mark of the election campaign. The candidates have been nominated, polling cards are arriving and the first postal votes are about to be cast. With more than 4,500 candidates standing and no seat having fewer than five candidates, voters will have more choice than ever – so how will they use it?

There are a record number of independent candidates, at 459, more than double the number in 2019. Although independents have been doing well in local elections throughout this parliament, their impact at a general election is usually more limited.

More influential will be the other national parties. The Liberal Democrats, Reform UK and the Green party have candidates in almost all seats across Great Britain, and of course the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru are standing across all seats in Scotland and Wales respectively.

While the Lib Dems and Greens have increased their numbers of candidates, the most consequential change is in the number of places where it will be possible to vote for Nigel Farage’s Reform UK. Last time, as the Brexit party, it fielded 277 candidates; this year Reform is fielding 609.

Crucially, in 2019 the Brexit party stood down candidates in seats where there was an incumbent Conservative MP. The number of seats this decision saved the Tories is estimated to have been no more than a handful. But at the same time the Brexit party cost the Conservatives up to 25 seats across the “red wall” where it did stand, according to estimates from analysis in the book The British General Election of 2019.

With Farage’s surprise takeover of Reform’s leadership at the start of the campaign, Reform poses an even greater challenge to the Conservatives in 2024. Its presence changes the dynamic of party competition in all types of seats, and as 2019 showed it does not need to win seats to damage the Tories.


Those on the left of British politics are well versed in this phenomenon: the left-leaning vote splitting over different parties and allowing the Conservatives to win seats they might not have won had the other parties worked together.

Electoral pacts and tactical voting advice have sought to reduce the impact of these splits on the left, and local election results suggest voters have become adept at working out how best to remove an incumbent Conservative.

This time, the right face these issues writ large. Even if parts of the right may be willing to countenance some kind of deal, voters choosing Reform UK are angry and disillusioned with the government and unlikely to vote tactically for Tories.

The combined impact of Reform increasing its vote share and standing candidates everywhere could be devastating for the Conservatives. As many as one in three voters who backed the Conservatives in 2019 are switching to Reform, according to some polling.

Even in places where Reform does not poll highly, it can still cause damage to Rishi Sunak’s party. In “blue wall’ seats where the Lib Dems are the main challengers, every voter who switches from Conservative to Reform takes the Lib Dems closer to victory.

The impact of increased electoral choice and a Conservative party whose popularity is in freefall may be dramatic. Recent polling by YouGov has shown the Conservatives in fifth place across voters under 50, behind Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Reform and the Greens.

This is perhaps a portent of what is to come in electoral competition over the course of the next parliament, a result of fragmentation in the electorate and the party system over the past decade. It should be a warning to Labour not to take any part of its coalition of voters for granted.

As we enter the final three weeks of the campaign, talk seems to have moved to who forms the opposition, rather than the government. The question no longer seems to be whether Keir Starmer can get to the finish line first but rather whether any of the other parties can beat the Conservatives to it.

*Paula Surridge is a professor of political sociology at the University of Bristol.