With the electoral success of The Brexit Party in the recent European Parliament elections, there has been a clamor from supporters of Texas leaving the union to start a new Texit Party. They are getting the wrong message.
The UK/European election systems
The UK political system is a mystery to most Texans. Throw in the European Parliament and it becomes so foreign that it seems like it’s from another planet. Before you can make electoral comparisons between Texas and the UK, you have to understand how both systems work, how they are similar, and how they are vastly different.
The UK technically has a multi-party system. Political parties spring up and disappear with regularity. But for most of their recent democratic history, there have only been two dogs in the hunt – Conservatives and Labour. The Liberal Democrats have been occasionally successful but never on par with the strength of the duopoly. Then you have the nations within the UK, as power has devolved from Westminster, that have seen success of their own national parties within their borders. For example, the Scottish National Party in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales, and Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.
Yet even as friendly as the UK system seems to be to new and different political parties, the two major parties have a lock on Parliament in Westminster that has held in one General Election after another. This happens for one reason alone – first-past-the-post voting.
First-past-the-post voting should be familiar to Texans. It’s what we have here. The person with the most votes wins.This type of system favors incumbents and long-established political parties and is used with great effect by the political class to maintain power.
However, the European Parliament elections are a different matter entirely. Members of the European Parliament are elected through a system of proportional representation. In the European system member states are divided into regions with each region being allotted a certain number of seats for that region based on the population. When elections are held, voters go to the polls and vote for the party of their choice which has provided a list of party members who would sit for the party if they win a seat. The list is in order of who would be seated first to who would be seated last.
The goal of proportional representation is to try to ensure that a region’s representatives are a true slice of the entire voting population of a region. This effectively gives parties who would otherwise never get a seat at the table a chance to at least be in the room.
The Texas election system
In contrast with the system that we have in Texas, both the UK and European electoral systems are far more amenable to parties other than the major two. In fact, the success of new or minor political parties is so improbable in Texas that all of them are commonly referred to as “third parties”.
The two major parties, Republicans and Democrats, have had such a lock on power that their grip on power has been protected in statute. One glance over the Texas Election Code proves this to be the case.
New political parties have to be organized in the same exact way as the two major parties. They must have an executive committee with two representatives from each Senate district and the two representatives from those Senate districts have to be of the opposite sex. Every party must have County Chairmen (254) who are legally bound to file reports and conduct elections according to the Texas Election Code. That doesn’t even include the requirements for Precinct Chairs.
In addition, just because a party becomes an officially recognized political party doesn’t mean that they automatically have the right to have their candidates names placed on the ballot. Here’s an excerpt from the Texas Secretary of State’s website on the issue.
“To be entitled to place their nominees on the general election ballot, third parties must first file a list of precinct convention participants with the Secretary of State not later than the 75th day after the date of the precinct conventions (i.e., May 29, 2018). Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 181.005(a). (deadline extended under Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 1.006) The list must include the residence address and voter registration number of each participant. § 181.005(a). The list must indicate that the number of participants equals at least one percent of the total number of votes received by all candidates for governor in the most recent gubernatorial election.”
That means that 83,434 people have to participate in the precinct convention of a new political party or collect the shortfall by petition within that 75 day window. For new parties and parties without ballot access, this is a near impossible feat.
What’s worse is that anyone can become a candidate for a party just by paying the filing fee meaning that you have no control over who carries your banner and no real way to hold them accountable if they step out of line. In addition, anyone can claim that they are a full member of your party just by voting in your primary or participating in your convention, giving them virtually unlimited access to change the ideological direction of your party.
The Texas Election Code imposes regulatory hurdles on political parties that no other private organization has to endure. It effectively places the thumb of the government on political parties to lock in the power of the two major parties who also happen to run the government.
Nigel Farage didn’t just pop up in 2015
As the eyes of disgruntled Texas gaze to east at the recent success of The Brexit Party, it is tempting to want to emulate their success by parroting what they are doing now. On the surface, it seems attractive and easy. The popular narrative is that six weeks ago Nigel Farage formed The Brexit Party and went on to win the 2019 European elections in the UK. The conclusion by some is that if Texans form a Texit Party then we can expect the same success in the same measure.
But there is a cautionary quote from Tim Hiller that says, “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle, or your middle to someone else’s end.” There is also the old adage that says not to compare apples to oranges. Both of these apply here.
Nigel Farage is a force of nature, but he didn’t get that way overnight nor did Brexit happen overnight. His political career really began when he was a local leader in the UK Independence Party and was elected as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP). Even then, he was not the Nigel that everyone knows today.
He slogged along in the European Parliament, a body whose members have no real power or authority, until he gave a verbal beatdown on EU President Herman van Rompuy in 2010 that went viral thanks to social media. Because of his famous “damp rag” speech, Farage became the popular manifestation of every single Eurosceptic both in Britain and abroad.
It was four more years before a Farage-led UKIP was able to deliver a smashing blow to the political establishment in the European elections. UKIP was able to send more MEP’s to Brussels than either of the two major political parties in the UK, the Conservatives and Labour.
In 2015, UKIP rode higher than ever. They had over 35,000 dues-paying members and had raised a few million dollars. Using their money and momentum they were able to run the most professional campaign that UKIP had ever run and challenged every seat in Parliament in that year’s General Election. Garnering the 3rd highest number of votes of any party in that election, UKIP was still able to elect only one member to Parliament.
The platform that they had gained from being able to elect members to body chosen by proportional representation did not translate into electoral success in a first-past-the-post system. What it did do, however, was provide enough of a scare to the political establishment that both major parties added a call for a Brexit referendum to their manifestos, a promise which was kept by Prime Minister David Cameron in 2016. Although electoral success in Parliament eluded them, UKIP’s role as a pressure group brought them enough political success to force the Brexit issue front-and-center.
The role that UKIP played was crucial to the final success of the Brexit referendum. While Farage was the frontman, UKIP as an organization had grown in numbers, in dollars, and in clout. It was their laser focus on building their organization and their warchest that, although excluded from the official Leave campaign, allowed UKIP to play an outsized role in winning a Brexit vote.
Upon winning the referendum, Nigel announced that he would be stepping down as leader of UKIP to reclaim the remainder of his life away from politics. His life goal achieved, he did just that.
As time wore on, Brexit wasn’t happening and it seemed to be slipping away from the majority of Britons who had voted for it. The political class were hijacking democracy in Britain and Nigel began to realize that something had to be done.
Returning as the leader of UKIP was an option but not a very good one. In Nigel’s absences, the party had gone through a series of failed leaders and had seemingly lost its focus on returning self-government to the people of Britain and tarnishing the brand along the way. When faced with the choice of returning to a tarnished UKIP that would have to be fixed or starting a new party, Nigel chose the latter. The Brexit Party was born.
Within a month over 100,000 Brits had become registered supporters of The Brexit Party at £25 (~$32) each. Many of these were people who followed Nigel from UKIP and Leave voters from the other major parties. This provided much needed capital to launch a major media campaign, launch a multi-city tour, hire staff, and saturate digital and social media.
To say that The Brexit Party was started six weeks before the European elections is a gross oversimplification. To say that The Brexit Party is just the Nigel Farage Show or UKIP 2.0 is an even worse oversimplification.
At the point that The Brexit Party was formed, Nigel Farage had been fighting for Brexit for 25 years. The other talent in The Brexit Party have each had their own long careers as Eurosceptics or in politics, business, or the media. The Brexit Party is the middle or end of the story. It is not the beginning.
Deconstructing Brexit for Texas
The lesson to be learned from all of this is that you can never take another country’s independence experience and directly apply it to our circumstances here in Texas. They are incompatible. However, what we do in the TNM is mine each of them for individual lessons that can be applied.
What this means to pro-Texit Texans at this moment is that we have to deal with the electoral system as it is and use it to our advantage. Why start a political party and do all of the heavy lifting when we’ve already got two major parties with ballot access that can do that for us. After all, it’s about winning elections and gaining a platform to implement our ideas. Who cares what their platforms say? Candidates who are elected in those parties don’t care about the platforms and apparently the vast majority of people who vote for those candidates don’t care about or even know the party platforms either.
This is why we’ve chosen to start fielding our own candidates from here on out without becoming a political party. It allows us to operate without the restrictions placed on us by the Texas Election Code, guarantees ballot access if a candidate chooses to run in a party primary, gives us low petition thresholds for most offices if a candidate chooses to run as an independent, and ensures that we have the ability to organize in a way that suits the situation as it currently stands. We have the ability to determine who our candidates are, how they are selected, and how we hold officials elected under our banner are held accountable.
For incumbents, it means we can choose to battle them in their primaries in their own party or direct everyone in the TNM to vote for an independent in the General Election and potentially play the role of kingmaker or king-killer in a district.
In short, we can enjoy the benefits of operating like a political party while avoiding all of the obstacles placed in front of those who start a political party.
What’s next Texas?
On the surface, the Brexit Party and its success in the European election can offer little for us but inspiration. However, an indepth look at how The Brexit Party came to be and the multi-decade long history can provide much more. It can show us that self-determination and exit can absolutely happen as long as we apply the right lessons at the right time and in the right manner.
Will there come a time for Texans to form a Texit Party? Perhaps, but there is still an awful lot of political road that has to be traveled before that decision has to be made.
In the meantime, TNM supporters must focus on increasing our base of support by engaging voters, getting their pledges of support for the TNM, recruiting candidates, volunteering to work for those candidates, and donating money for the effort.