At a debate on democracy earlier this year columnist and former MP Matthew Parris registered an eclectic complaint about the state of our governance. Manifestos, he said, are too bloody long, and increasingly so. It would be better for politicians to give fewer specifics during elections.
The Brexit Party might well have taken this advice if any of their members were at the Institute of Economic Affairs that night. Since launching in January, Nigel Farage’s latest vehicle aims only to fulfil the referendum mandate to withdraw Britain from the EU, and will only produce a manifesto after the European elections.
This unorthodox way of running a party is reflected in its motley candidate list. Alongside Farage the party has signed up former lads mag editor Martin Daubney, former Tory MP Anne Widdecombe, and Claire Fox, a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party and current director of the Institute of Ideas think tank.
Farage is facing all the usual requests for cancellation that accompany his regular returns from retirement. But the scrutinising of Fox has brought an arcane branch of British political history to the fore – specifically the afterlife of the Revolutionary Communist Party.
The party, of which Fox was a member, has a sprawling history since it was dissolved in 1997. Following a libel suit that shut down house magazine Living Marxism, its successor Spiked was set up online in 2000. Around the same time Fox set up the Institute of Ideas (legally known as the Academy of Ideas). Other related groups and campaign such as the recent Invoke Democracy Now and the Full Brexit have followed.
The shared personnel of the website, the institute, and several other organisations has led to accusations that these are merely front groups, with the entrance of some personnel into mainstream media – Fox being a regular panellist on the BBC’s Moral Maze – prompting complaints about entryism. The widespread use of pseudonyms by the key cast certainly hasn’t helped.
The likes of Guardian hack George Monbiot have complained about the influence of the so-called “LM Network” getting on for two decades, and his colleague at the Observer Nick Cohen is also not a fan. One suspects, from reading Jenny Turner’s history of the group in the London Review of Books from 2010, that the interest of some middle-aged pundits is partly due to their own connections to the old left, but the desire to oppose Brexit and those campaigning for it has added urgency.
For my part I buy Turner’s middling assessment of the Revolutionary Communist Party’s aftermath: “It probably does make sense to talk about an ‘LM network’, in the way it’s possible to talk about Oxbridge or Scottish or London literary mafias, or Guardianistas, or YBAs [Young British Artists].” Critics are at least partly complaining that Fox and friends can play the game.
Either way, Fox can expect a lot more where this scrutiny came from. Like Jeremy Corbyn before, her allegiance to a crusty leftwing group (latterly left libertarian, depending on your mileage), has made it easy to ask questions about whether she thinks the Irish Republican Army was justified in bombing Warrington in 1993, to name one contentious area being probed by the mainstream media.
Speaking to Toby Young, associate editor at Quillette, Fox denied the relevance of these comments to her candidacy in the European elections. Even laying aside the centrality of Anglo-Irish relations to our exit from the EU, in my view anyone standing for as much as a parish council in Britain can justifiably be questioned on their views about when political violence is justified.
At the same time, I think she has a point. The Brexit Party is not like other parties, and these European elections, which Britain would not be participating in if Brexit had been managed in an orderly fashion, are abnormal too. I’ve misgivings about both the party and some of its candidates, but there is no clearer way of reinforcing the British demand for self-government than backing this motley crew at the European elections.
Image based on Fox, March 2013 by Der Robert