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Why won’t the European Right build alliances?

The National Rally's Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella were less successful than expected in Sunday's elections. Credit: Getty

July 9, 2024 - 1:05pm

For almost all of 2024, we have been warned about the “rapidly rising Right” in European politics. This seems to have been punctured by British and French elections in the last week, in which the Left has gained political power while only marginally increasing in popularity. With the Left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon opening his victory speech at a rally on Sunday by saying “Arise, oh wretched of the earth,” the Left now clearly wants to portray itself as the ascendant force. But is this to be believed?

Germany is still governed by a Left-wing coalition, and despite having only 31% voter approval, Chancellor Olaf Scholz will most likely remain in office until 2025. Spain continues to be governed by the socialist Pedro Sánchez, while Portugal’s centre-right barely managed to edge out a minority government. Over in the UK, Labour has just swept to power after 14 years of Conservative rule.

Even in supposedly neo-nationalist Eastern Europe, the winds are changing. Once solidly Right-wing, earlier this year Poland handed over power to a more liberal government under former European Council president Donald Tusk; and Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party stumbled in the most recent EU elections. So, was all that talk about a Right-wing wave much ado about nothing, or is there something beneath the surface that these election results are obscuring?

While the Right may not be in power, it has not lost popularity. Sometimes peculiar electoral systems can disguise broader trends in politics. For example, although it looked like Starmer’s Labour had won a landslide, the party in fact received fewer votes than it did in 2017 under Jeremy Corbyn. The true story was the split of the Right-wing vote between the unpopular Tories and Nigel Farage’s populist Reform UK.

In Spain and Poland, conservative parties remain in the lead among the public, and it is their inability to enter into effective coalitions with the alleged “far-Right” that often prevents them from taking power. While Le Pen’s National Rally came third in terms of parliamentary seats — which is what matters, of course — the party won the popular vote with 37.1% compared to the Left Alliance’s 26.3% and Macron’s 24.7%.

The difference between the Right and the Left in Europe is that the latter is capable of building alliances across ideological differences, held together solely by a rejection of conservative rivals. Two years ago in Hungary, there was an alliance formed including the Greens and the neo-fascist Jobbik party, whose only commonality was the rejection of Orbán’s government. Similarly in France, there is now a de facto electoral alliance between the “bourgeois” centrist Macron and the socialist Mélenchon, who both want to prevent a majority for the National Rally.

In other words, the problem of Europe’s Right-wing parties is less the decline of the popularity of conservative ideas, especially on crime and immigration, and more an inability to forge durable electoral coalitions. When the leader of the French Republicans, Éric Ciotti, suggested precisely such a coalition with the National Rally, he was almost immediately ostracised from his own party.

Contrary to what most of the media is reporting, there are no longer Right-of-centre and Left-of-centre political parties, but instead an electoral bloc of Left-leaning parties on the one side, and one or two parties on the Right often collectively smeared as “far-Right”. Rishi Sunak and Macron are not Right-wing politicians when measured on their governance, which has often prioritised progressive policies on environmentalism or mass immigration.

There are many lessons to learn from the recent elections, but the idea that Right-wing populism has been defeated is not one of them. Really, these politicians just need to pay attention to the Left, and figure out how they can work together.

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Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 days ago

Short answer: because the Left has been allowed to create the narrative that everyone the tiniest bit to the right of centre is a dangerous neo-N**i – conveniently deflecting from the Left’s own terrible humanitarian record.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 days ago

The author is confusing populism with right wing. Nonetheless, he asks an interesting question. I’m not sure what the answer is. I suppose establishment politicians are scared to death of populists because they fear being pushed out of power. Many populist politicians are oddballs, like wilders and Trump so I guess they are a bit discombobulating.

I suspect the Tories will eventually merge with Reform in Britain. Their voting base is almost identical. It’s the politicians who won’t shift right now, but they will when their elected lives depend on it. Like the Republicans, who were initially dismissive of Trump, they have now embraced him.

The general public don’t like open borders and net zero because anyone with common sense sees the destruction they cause. Polical parties can only wish this away for so long. They will either oppose these policies or get pushed out, regardless of their willingness to share power with populists.

T Bone
T Bone
3 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The Right can’t organize. Most Conservative voters arent active and don’t ascribe to group politics.

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

In other words, Conservative-leaning people have lives to get on with, rather than being obsessives whose lives revolve around activism to destroy this and that in preparation for creating utopias. The sad thing is that when conservatives start organising to defend what they care about, they immediately become something different and less valuable.

T Bone
T Bone
3 days ago

Correct.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
2 days ago

Those than can, do, those that can’t, organise, usually politically.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

That’s fair. They are less ideologically motivated IMO as well and more likely to be persuaded by mainstream narratives that populist X is a threat to democracy. That narrative is built on sand though and will eventually be washed away by the destruction wrought from open borders and net zero.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
2 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

The Right doesn’t have such a herd instinct …

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 days ago

I’m starting to think the European right shares a dubious trait with its American counterpart – neither particularly likes the heavy lifting involved with governing. Both like to talk and speechify and outline the horribles of the left but eventually, you have to do more than that. Decision-making can be hard; it will almost certainly upset someone but that’s the nature of politics and govt. The left has no such reservation about making anyone mad, even its own supporters.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

What are you talking about? There are plenty of right wing govt’s in the US, both the federal Republicans and literally dozens of states. They have governed many many times. There are right wing govt’s in Europe too, just less of them because Europe seems ideologically left leaning. Le Pen’s party would not be considered right wing in Britain or across the anglosphere.

Brian Kneebone
Brian Kneebone
2 days ago

One of the costs of being around a long time is to become increasingly confused. In my country (Australia) the left, particularly the trade unions were at one time, against uncontrolled immigration. Now the left is, apparently, for uncontrolled borders.
What happened?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 days ago
Reply to  Brian Kneebone

Unions went middle class long ago.
Mainly government employees at all levels.

Tradespeople are mostly self-employed or part of small businesses and unions despise them.

A D Kent
A D Kent
3 days ago

As usual the MSM (of which Unherd is sadly a part) chooses to bury the fact that Starmer’s NuNu Labour didn’t just receive fewer votes than Corbyn achieved in 2017, NuNu got fewer than Corbyn did in the disaster of 2019 too.

We’ll see how well the left’s alliance in France holds together – I’d give it six months. The big division in ‘populist’ parties across Europe is whether or not they think Putin is so evil he should not be talked to – that’s what will bring down any alliances as every sensible knows that anyone who even considers doing so is obviously a useful idiot and to be shunned.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
2 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

You obviously don’t follow Unherd.
See https://unherd.com/watch-listen/labours-shallow-victory/

ERIC PERBET
ERIC PERBET
2 days ago

One of the crucial issues regarding the so-called moderate or mainstream Right is that for over 40 years it has been somehow “dhimmified” by the progressive Left so as to lose most of its traits: this is a Right that’s merely a Left lagging 20 years behind! This right is ashamed of claiming conservative values and more or less adheres to the would-be moral stance of the Left – and especially its supposedly moral leadership – a moral stance that has become increasingly hard-Left over the years.
The mainstream Right of today in Western countries has more in common with the various Socialist / SDP parties of the sixties and seventies than with the conservative Rignt: no wonder people who consider themselves “mainstream Right” now turn to the so-called “hard-Right”: this is indeed the only option left when you favour conservative values…
Regarding Mélenchon, his LFI party has only secured 78 seats (out of a total of 184 for the New Popular Front) compared to 143 secured by Bardella’s Rassemblement National (including their LR allies) out of a total of 577 seats at the National Assembly.
Mélenchon is only the self-proclaimed leader of himself but his Trotskyte bully manners seem to mesmerize the entire Left: there lies the real danger…

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 days ago

Umberto Corazzi
To understand the result of the French vote, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of the mechanics of the French legislative elections, which are different from any other electoral system in the world. And at the same time, to weigh-in the powers of the President of the Republic that accompany it. Deep matters which only a constitutional jurist can address. —– On this occasion, there was neither a victory, nor a substantial loss on the part of anyone, but a stalemate. In practice, no one has lost anything, but has gained a position on the starting line of the next legislative elections, which Macron may hold, as per constitutional terms, in a year’s time. As such, all three sides appear in pole position. One stronger than the other two, Le Pen’s RN, because it is made up of a single block. While the other two are patchworks of large, small and medium-sized parties and interests that are often conflicting or divergent from each other. If we wanted to make a comparison with the Italian situation, we could have a Popular Front that includes the entire “Left” ranging from PD Secretary Schlein + M5S to telephone area code-sized currents, civic lists, autonomists, extra-parliamentarians. With everything in between. But even so, the majority to govern would not be reached. —– In the final analysis, the result of these French elections has highlighted a few things. (1) Macron’s coup de main worked, at the cost of making France’s governance unstable, pro-tempore. (2) The French have decided that they do not want Bardella as their prime minister (3) It is unclear whether Le Pen has emerged reinvigorated or weakened for her ultimate purposes, even though she has earned her party an all-time record of seats. It could be either the end of her “dreams of glory”, or just like a temporary “half-sleep”. (4) The position of Italian Première Giorgia Meloni, pro-European, altantist, pro-Ukraine is strengthened, (5) In the final analysis, the “results”, of everything, will depend on the US elections and whether there will be a sustained economic recovery. With a significant cut in Fed rates. —- All this, of course, if we will be lucky enough that in the meantime Russia, China, Israel, North Korea… do not make some rash move.

Last edited 2 days ago by UnHerd Reader
Michael Clarke
Michael Clarke
2 days ago

Nationalist parties must successfully challenge the “far right” narrative, which is designed to keep them out of office because they are euro-critical. As long as the MSM is successful with this tactic, electorates will vote against their own interests.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 days ago

Umberto Corazzi
To understand the result of the French vote, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of the mechanics of the French legislative elections, which are different from any other electoral system in the world. And at the same time weigh-in the powers of the President of the Republic that accompany it. Deep matters which only a constitutional jurist can address. —– On this occasion, there was neither a victory, nor a substantial loss on the part of anyone, but a stalemate. In practice, no one has lost anything, but has gained a position on the starting line of the next legislative elections, which Macron may hold, as per constitutional terms, in a year’s time. As such, all three sides appear in pole position. One stronger than the other two, Le Pen’s RN, because it is made up of a single block. While the other two are patchworks of large, small and medium-sized parties and interests that are often conflicting or divergent from each other. If we wanted to make a comparison with the Italian situation, we could have a Popular Front that includes the entire “Left” ranging from PD Secretary Schlein + M5S to telephone area code-sized currents, civic lists, autonomists, extra-parliamentarians. With everything in between. But even so, the majority to govern would not be reached. —– In the final analysis, the result of these French elections has highlighted a few things. (1) Macron’s coup de main worked, at the cost of making France’s governance unstable, pro-tempore. (2) The French have decided that they do not want Bardella as their prime minister (3) It is unclear whether Le Pen has emerged reinvigorated or weakened for her ultimate purposes, even though she has earned her party an all-time record of seats. It could be either the end of her “dreams of glory”, or just like a temporary “half-sleep”. (4) The position of Italian Première Giorgia Meloni, pro-European, altantist, pro-Ukraine is strengthened, (5) In the final analysis, the “results”, of everything, will depend on the US elections and whether there will be a sustained economic recovery. With a significant cut in Fed rates. —- All this, of course, if we will be lucky enough that in the meantime Russia, China, Israel, North Korea… do not make some rash move.

Last edited 2 days ago by UnHerd Reader
Andrew Armitage
Andrew Armitage
2 days ago

The ERG in the UK conservative party were completely incapable of compromise even within their own party. Their only tactic was to hold the country to ransom. In the face of the slightest setback they turned to blame and squabbles. They have no patience or sticking power. Hence I think Macron was smart to take the risk of challenging RN to run a country. They simply wouldn’t have been able to hold it together.

j watson
j watson
2 days ago

The problem for the Right in UK, and it appears not dissimilar elsewhere, is take away immigration and many of their supporters actually want better public services and more state intervention – not a typical Right wing prospectus. The Populist appeal in the Red Wall implodes if it reverts back to a Thatcherite/Neo Liberal offering. Thus the question – are those groupings labelled on the Right actually Right wing on anything but migration?
(I know some would play Net Zero into this too, but I suspect the public much less concerned by that as long as the costs don’t fall on the least able to bear them)
Thus occasionally you get this sense the Right needs a migration crisis or it’s coalition falls apart. As happened in the UK The European Right doesn’t have simple answers to demographics or illegal people movement, although there is no doubt all Govts need to do more on both.
The other dividing line, which strangely the Author fails to mention, is support for Putin. All these Right wing parties, including the Tories here in UK, should be forced to declare if any funds have been received from Russian sources. There is amongst some of this grouping a malign and dangerous relationship.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 days ago
Reply to  j watson

The greens,fractivists etc and their preceding pacifist movements like CND received support from Russia so it would rather blind and biased to just look at “all these right wing parties”.

j watson
j watson
1 day ago

I would agree to some extent. Useful idiots too for Putin a few of them. Full financial declarations for all