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Reform UK boosts Labour’s prospects but struggles to take seats

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Reform UK is boosting Labour’s prospects in its battle with the Conservatives, but narrow gains for the right-wing party in local elections where it stood in few seats have raised doubts over its wider electoral impact.

Party leader Richard Tice on Friday said Reform was making “great progress” in areas such as Sunderland in the north-east of England, where it lost a council seat but gained a higher vote share than the Tories.

The party came third in the Blackpool South by-election, with its candidate 117 votes shy of the Conservatives in second place.

Early analysis by the Financial Times of one-third of results in England showed Labour experienced a slight boost in vote share in council wards where Reform stood a candidate, while the Tories suffered a small loss in support, increasing the main opposition party’s average lead.

“What’s rapidly becoming clear . . . as more people hear about Reform is that we’re becoming the real opposition to the Labour party in the North, in the Midlands, in Wales,” Tice told the BBC. “Rome’s not built in a day but we are making great progress.”

Reform is raising alarm among some Tory MPs as it climbs the polls and eats into the party’s vote share at a time when moderate Conservative voters are switching to Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Talk of Tory rebels submitting letters of no confidence in Rishi Sunak faded quickly on Friday, but the prime minister is facing calls from some backbenchers to tack further to the right in order to curtail a loss of votes to Reform.

Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said the governing party would be mistaken if it attempted to lean into Reform’s “anti-woke and anti-immigration” policy agenda.

“Some Conservative MPs seem more stressed about losses to Reform than Labour, even though the latter is more serious,” Bale said. “If they interpret the general election result in the same way, they risk prolonging their time in opposition.”

Labour is about 20 points ahead of the Conservatives in national polling, but it would need a significant swing in support to take an outright House of Commons majority in an election.

Reform stood candidates in only 12 per cent of contested council seats and focused on the Blackpool South by-election, where Labour’s Chris Webb beat his Tory rival with a historic 26 per cent swing.

A Conservative spokesperson said: “What has been clear is that a vote for Reform is a vote for Sir Keir Starmer.”

By early afternoon on Friday, Reform had averaged about 12 per cent of the vote in 174 of the 323 wards it had contested, having focused on seats that heavily backed Brexit in northern towns and cities such as Bolton, Hartlepool and Sunderland.

Asked by the BBC if Reform’s performance mattered if it could not muster enough votes to win seats, Tice complained about the first-past-the-post electoral system, saying it “shows democracy isn’t working”.

The right-wing populist party, founded by arch-Brexiter Nigel Farage, has struggled to match the heights of the UK Independence party in the lead-up to the 2016 EU referendum. But it is expected to split the right-wing vote in a general election.

Reform took about 17 per cent of the vote in the Blackpool South contest, matching Ukip’s performance in the same constituency in the 2015 general election.

In by-elections this year in Wellingborough and Kingswood, the party secured more than 10 per cent of the vote — the first time it crossed that threshold — to increase jitters in Sunak’s party.

Rob Ford, professor of political science at Manchester university, said the most winnable seats for Reform were Tory-held constituencies, and that he was surprised at the amount of “noise” it was making in Labour areas.

Ford said focus would quickly return to whether the party’s founder made a comeback in the general election, adding: “If Farage takes a more active role in the Reform campaign, it has a higher chance of changing the political wind.”

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