Combatting Populism in Europe: Could the UK Be the Exception that Proves the Rule
We are kidding ourselves if we think that Europe’s ‘mainstream’ political parties can get together to tackle their populist and extremist challengers. The reason is simple: the implications of populist radical right success are not the same for the centre-right as they are for the centre-left. Interestingly, one of the exceptions to this rule could be the UK, although whether or not the Conservative and Labour Parties realise this – especially given the quality of the immigration debate in the country’s print media – is a moot point.
Put crudely, many large centre-right parties in what many in the UK still quaintly refer to as ‘the continent’ have learned to put up with losing votes to the populist radical right because they’ve come to realise that such parties may well help them get into, or help keep them, in government.
They also know that the sometimes disproportionate media attention paid to populist radical right parties will help keep migration and multiculturalism in the forefront of voters’ minds – and that those topics are ‘wedge issues’ which cause problems for their social democratic rivals by splitting their electoral coalition of middle-class liberals (many of whom are employed in the public sector) and more traditionalist working class supporters.
In Britain, though, things are a little different. No-one is saying that questioning migration and multiculturalism doesn’t play well for the Conservatives (or Tories as they are sometimes called). But there are limits. ‘Banging on’ about immigration, in other words, is tempting but it may be beginning to be counterproductive. So concerned have voters become about such issues – and so difficult is it, given EU membership, for any UK government ever to do enough to assuage those concerns – that voters are beginning to look to a party (UKIP) whose popularity could very well see them emerge as the biggest UK delegation after the European Parliament elections next year and may even (albeit indirectly) cost the Conservatives a handful of seats at the next general election.
More fundamentally, trying to match UKIP’s hard-line offer on immigration and integration, is not only a waste of time, energy and resources that would be better spent on electorally even more crucial issues (most obviously the economy and public services). It also makes it harder than ever for the Tories to attract the well-heeled and well-educated liberal voters, and the ethnic minority voters, that they badly need in the long term.
Given this – and given that the UK’s ‘first-past-the-post’, non-proportional electoral system means that UKIP will never be in a position to help turn a putative Conservative plurality in parliament into a working majority – then Tory politicians urgently need to consider whether the short-term electoral gains over Labour an anti-immigration stance seems to offer them are worth the pain it may cause them in the long-run.
Now, when it comes to Labour, there’s a lot of nonsense talked about the extent to which UKIP (and before it the BNP) poses a threat to Britain’s main centre-left party. The evidence suggests that most citizens toying with the idea of voting for the far-right probably wouldn’t vote for the centre-left anyway – or else they might not vote at all. And where that’s less true – and we’re talking here about white working class men with little education and a precarious position in the labour market – then they are concentrated in seats that Labour isn’t going to lose in a million years anyway.
Of course, the threat to Labour still exists, but it’s largely an indirect one. It stems, firstly, from the fact that, if UKIP is high up in the media mix, then so are all of its signature issues (immigration, Europe, etc.) – issues which don’t play well for Labour electorally. It stems, secondly, from the fact that widespread concern about those issues ends up shifting what we might term the political centre of gravity to the restrictive, authoritarian right. That shift then feeds through into public policy, hurting the economy and the people whose interests that Labour is supposedly in politics to protect and promote.
As a result, Labour has just as much of an interest as its Conservative rival in levelling and actually engaging with the British public about immigration instead of, as it is currently accused by some of its critics on the liberal left of doing, endlessly apologising and even playing catch-up with the Conservatives and, by implication, UKIP.
In fact, the Party’s leader, Ed Miliband, was probably right to say sorry on immigration: after all, the effectively open-door policy Labour operated in government between 1997 and 2010 clearly went against what most voters wanted, yet it went ahead and did it anyway in the belief that the economic benefits to Britain would in the end trump any cultural concerns.
But apologising won’t be enough for Labour. Nor will simply toughening its line on migration and multiculturalism. The Party now needs to do something much harder, something much more risky, namely to think about how, if it does make it back into government in 2010, it is going to make the argument for a fair-minded, relatively liberal regime. One possibility would be a ‘contact democracy’ strategy, rooted in a simultaneous local and national approach which takes the electorate’s feelings seriously but actually tackles them head-on rather than simply hoping they go away as the economy recovers or, worse still, pandering to them.
Whether such an approach will be actively adopted any time soon by mainstream politicians in the UK, however, depends on three things, the first two of which are in politicians’ hands but the third of which is beyond their control.
The first consideration is how rapidly the Conservative Party recognises that, unlike many of its European counterparts, its long-term electoral and governmental ambitions don’t in fact lie in putting up with or even copying populist radical right parties. Anyone hoping that this will happen sooner rather than later, would be well advised not to hold their breath, especially in the light of a recent, allegedly UKIP-lite speech made by Tory Prime Minister David Cameron.
The second variable is whether the Labour Party is brave (some critics would say foolish) enough to realise that immigration might be one of those rare issues on which, because the strong feelings they generate are generally not supported either by the facts or people’s own experience, politicians may be able to help shape voters’ preferences rather than simply accommodate them.
This brings us to the third and final factor – the media. Large parts of the UK’s popular press – whether it be the Sunor the Daily Mail – are heavily invested in a stance on migration and multiculturalism that their detractors label as not just restrictive and traditionalist but hysterically xenophobic.
Over time, of course, the influence of such titles is bound to wane, as fewer and fewer people get their news from the print media, relying instead almost exclusively on television (and perhaps the web). For the moment, however, such newspapers remain a force in the land – and one that both Britain’s main political parties are still scared to go up against. As a result, although they have more reason than their European equivalents to get together to combat populism, the likelihood of them doing so still remains depressingly remote.