Politics is like poker. You don’t always need that strong a hand in order to win. You just have to convince your opponents that you do.
The influence of Europe’s – and in particular Britain’s – populist radical Right parties is a case in point.
Although we’ve been hearing about their rising support for years now, few of them have actually won sufficient seats in parliament to force their way into national office. And, as we’ve seen in Peterborough, some of them can’t even win high profile by-elections.
Yet – often with the help (if not necessarily the support) of a media that understandably craves conflict and novelty – they’ve managed to shift the centre of gravity strongly in their direction, particularly when it comes to questions of migration and multiculturalism.
For decades, many centre-Right parties either didn’t have to think very much about those questions (because the numbers coming to their country were so small) or, like the Conservative Party here, they had established a reputation in the minds of voters for being the tougher of the two main governing alternatives on such issues.
Once numbers began to increase, however, those centre-Right parties, already losing support as voters lost faith in their ability to produce the economic goods, were in a bind.
On the one hand, as market-friendly parties supported by business, they could see the case for maintaining a reasonably relaxed attitude: no point, after all, in cutting off a useful source of often cheap, hard-working and flexible labour. On the other, as self-appointed guardians both of their country’s traditional values and its sovereignty, they understood and sympathised with the cultural anxieties felt by many of their ‘natural voters’ – anxieties which more extreme alternatives on their right flanks were more than happy to exploit.
Social democratic parties on the Left, meanwhile, were losing support, particularly among the shrinking ranks of the traditional working class. And they were desperately casting around for reasons why. Rising support for the populist radical Right provided an easy, off-the-shelf explanation that avoided their having to ask whether the truth lay elsewhere – such as with their third-way embrace of less redistributive, less interventionist economic and social policies, and in the seemingly remorseless displacement of authentic working class voices by well-heeled, well-educated, and more professional politicians.
The evidence suggests that the centre-Left has always been significantly less likely to lose voters directly to the populist radical Right than its centre-right opponents. Take Denmark, which is much in the news at the moment. Yes, the Social Democrats, who’d considerably tightened up their already pretty restrictive immigration and integration policies, did well in this week’s general election. And yes, the populist radical Right Danish People’s Party did badly. But the one doesn’t necessarily explain the other – not when flow-of-the-vote calculations suggest that less than 10% of the former’s vote was made up of people who’d previously voted for the latter.
Yet, predisposed as they are to add two and two to make five, Labour and social democratic politicians all over Europe have been no less obsessed than conservative, Christian democratic and even liberal parties with trying to work out how to respond to a threat that can easily appear bigger than it is. What else explains Ed Miliband’s famous immigration mug, or Jeremy Corbyn’s desire to limit free movement not just of goods, services and capital but of people, too?
The mainstream’s first response is often to try to change the subject by talking about almost anything else other than immigration and integration. That’s not altogether impossible: after all, people still care about the economy and public services. But it’s very difficult to do when voters clearly are concerned about such things and, especially when there are plenty of politicians and journalists who know that ‘floods’ of migrants, their apparent ‘failure’ to ‘fit in’, and the supposed ‘strain’ they place on the welfare state make for such arresting headlines.
The mainstream’s response at that point is to try to fight fire with facts – which, as anyone who has tried it will attest, is normally about as effective as fighting with one hand tied behind your back, especially when not everyone in the mainstream (particularly on the centre-right, it has to be said) is averse to peddling some now-familiar myths themselves.
As a result, the most obvious recourse for both centre-Left and centre-Right parties is to claim ‘We’re listening’ and to start adopting – albeit in dilute form and couched in less inflammatory rhetoric – some of the diagnoses and the policy prescriptions of their more radical opponents. The hope, of course, is that voters, realising that their concerns (many of which revolve around the sheer rapidity of cultural change that they never explicitly consented to) are now apparently being taken seriously, will end their flirtation with the extreme and gratefully return to the mainstream.
Except it doesn’t always work like that. By ‘banging on’ about the urgent need to control migration and insisting that migrants mustn’t live separate lives, as well as about (to pick two not-so-random examples) net migration targets and the big bad EU, mainstream parties only serve to up the salience of such issues. And so, rather than undermining the populist radical Right, they actually do it a favour – not least because it can always trump any restrictive (or Eurosceptic) policy that a mainstream party can dream up with something much bigger and better.
Nigel Farage will no doubt be peeved by the Brexit Party’s failure to pull off a win in Peterborough. But it won’t wipe the smile off his face permanently. Farage knows from his days as UKIP leader that all he has to do to get what he wants (which, whatever he might say about taking over at Westminster, remains, in the end, a no-deal Brexit) is to score highly enough in polls and in European and by-elections to make sitting MPs believe that his candidates are capable of stealing enough of ‘their’ voters to gift their seats to their main opponent.
Right now, then, Farage has got both Labour and the Conservatives exactly where he wants them: living in fear and promising the undeliverable.