The rise of populism is the most disruptive political trend of the last two decades, and there’s no sign of it fading away. Just in the last few days, we’ve seen hard-Right parties hitting record highs in the Netherlands and Portugal.
Evidently, the populist phenomenon has not been overhyped. And yet it may be helping to mask a less obvious but nonetheless important trend, which we might call “party swapping”. This is what happens when voters get tired of an established party and shift their support to a substitute party in the same part of the political spectrum.
Contemporary examples include France, where the centre-right Republicans (i.e. the French Tories) haven’t just lost support to Marine Le Pen, but also to Emmanuel Macron — who, for all his liberal posturing, has governed from the centre-right.
Then there’s the Netherlands, where the once-mighty Christian Democrats were overtaken by the equally centre-right Liberals and then, at the last election, by New Social Contract — a breakaway faction from their own party.
In the 1990s, the Italian Christian Democrats, mired in scandal, were displaced by Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. But that was just the start of the party swapping — Forza was subsequently elbowed aside by Matteo Salvini’s Lega, which was in turn superseded by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. Admittedly, there was a lot populism involved along the way, but Meloni governs Italy as a no-nonsense conservative, not the mad neo-fascist some feared she was.
So for all the undoubted appeal of contemporary populism, it’s important not to overlook the desire of voters to replace failing centre-right parties with improved versions. The radical change they seek is far more institutional than ideological.
In Estonia, the governing Reform Party is currently haemorrhaging support to the rival Fatherland Party. There are some differences of style and values between the two — Reform is classical liberal, trendy and urban; Fatherland more conservative, traditional and rural — but both hail from the centre-right. What actually matters to voters is that the party in power is dogged by embarrassing allegations, while the other one isn’t. In France it went the other way, scandal-ridden conservatives driving voters into the arms of Macron’s reformists.
Could something similar happen in the UK? Thanks to the voting system, the British Conservatives have thus far had a near monopoly on centre-right politics. Alienated Tory voters have little choice but to defect to the centre-left or populist Right, or to not vote at all. That’s why the total right-of-centre vote in the UK is so low by international standards (roughly 35% including Reform).
Yet the UK is not an unusually Left-leaning country. Tory governments have dominated the democratic age and the most electorally successful Labour leader, Tony Blair, was also its most centrist. Instead, what’s happening is that centre-right voters can’t express their essential conservatism unless they endorse a fundamentally broken Conservative Party. Meanwhile, conservative challenges to the party are largely coming from the Right, as with Reform and today’s launch of the Popular Conservatism group.
The Tories are fortunate that there’s no alternative to them in the same political niche. If there were, they’d have been replaced by now. However, there’s a price for combining this natural monopoly with staggering political incompetence — and it will be paid at the next election.