Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party does not allow people to join as members because it feared that supporters of the far-right British National Party and English Defence League would sign up, according to documents disclosed by the Electoral Commission.
The documents reveal that the Brexit Party initially intended to organise itself similarly to UKIP — the anti–European Union party that Farage led for a decade until 2016 — but changed its constitution soon after registering to exclude members. Its current structure is unique among major British political parties.
“We’d like to amend the constitution so that we do not have members. This is to stop the EDF and BNP members who are banned by our party,” a Brexit Party representative wrote in an email to the electoral regulator in February. “We would like to have supporters only.”
The commission’s disclosures reveal that the Brexit Party is highly sensitive about details of its internal arrangements being made public. At one point, the documents show, the party accused the commission of allowing a “hostile” media outlet to undermine it because a copy of its constitution was released to The Guardian.
The Brexit Party declined to comment.
It is alone among the UK’s national political parties in not having fee-paying members who have an influence on its leadership. Labour has about 485,000 members, the Conservatives 180,000, and the Liberal Democrats just over 100,000. The Brexit Party boasts of having thousands of “registered supporters” who contributed £25 to be associated with it, but they have no formal say over its internal affairs.
The party’s decision to amend its structure to avoid being infiltrated by the far right highlights the extent to which Farage has tried to broaden the Brexit Party’s appeal beyond that of UKIP.
In a column in the Daily Telegraph in December, Farage said UKIP had been unfairly tainted by “accusations of racism and extremism”. He seems to have taken pains to avoid the Brexit Party being similarly characterised, focusing its messaging on Brexit and recruiting a diverse group of candidates.
The Brexit Party was registered with the Electoral Commission on Feb. 5, before Farage had formally taken over as leader. According to the correspondence with the commission, the Brexit Party’s first constitution was so similar to that of UKIP that the regulator had doubts about whether it could be accepted. It allowed it to be registered after the Brexit Party insisted it wasn't just copying Farage's old party.
Under the first constitution, “any natural person who shares the objectives and core beliefs of the Party” could’ve joined as members. They would have received a membership card and been eligible to vote in internal party elections. However, the constitution was soon revised to remove any provision for membership.
The revised constitution was obtained from the commission by the Guardian newspaper through an FOIA request. The Guardian ran a story in April claiming that the constitution gave Farage “near-total control” of the party. It worsened an already strained relationship between the Brexit Party and the regulator, according to their emails.
In June, Tracy Knowles, the party’s nominating officer, told the commission in an email: “The Brexit Party is committed to following all of its legal and regulatory requirements but we cannot abide by a situation in which every document we send to the commission is passed directly to a hostile media establishment and used to undermine us. I am sure that you will agree this is not in the interests of fairness.”
In future, Knowles said, commission staff would have to inspect its documents in person “and then we will take them and all copies away with us so that the Commission are not in control of documents and do not have to disclose them under FOIA”.
“Alternatively the Commission could agree that any documents we provide to them are provided in confidence as most regulators do,” Knowles added. “This would certainly improve our trust and faith in the Commission who have so far press released practically every interaction they have had with the Brexit Party in a manner which we do not consider is befitting an impartial regulator.”
In a reply in August, a commission official told Knowles that it was obliged to comply with the transparency laws. “No other party has raised an objection to this and it’s unclear to us why you should have a particular concern about that approach,” the official wrote.
The Brexit Party clashed publicly with the commission during the European election campaign in May. Days before the vote, it visited the Brexit Party’s office to examine its funding structure, prompting Farage to accuse it of an “outrageous act of political interference”. He accused the body of bias and said it was “absolutely full of Remainers”.
The commission was responding to reports that the party was encouraging supporters to make donations through its website while collecting little information about the sources of the payments. After its inspection, the commission warned the Brexit Party that its structure “leaves it open to a high and on-going risk of receiving and accepting impermissible donations”, although it did not find that it had broken any rules.