The Front National is expected to win next week’s European election in France; UKIP may well do so in Britain. Both parties combine a visceral hostility to immigration with an acerbic loathing of the EU, a virulent nationalism and deeply conservative views on social issues such as gay marriage and women’s rights. The problems that such parties pose for mainstream politics goes, however, far beyond the odiousness of their policies. What their success expresses is the redrawing of the political map in Europe, and in ways in which mainstream parties often do not understand. The new populists seem to thrive on different political rules to mainstream parties.
Take UKIP. The electoral threat it poses to both Tory and Labour has in recent weeks led to a fierce assault from mainstream politicians of all hues and from the media. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has been accused of misusing his expenses and of being a hypocrite for employing his German wife as his secretary, so depriving a British worker of a job. The racist, sexist and quite barmy views of a whole host of UKIP members, councillors and candidates have been laid bare. Under the old rules of politics such a battering would inevitably have undermined a party’s electoral prospects. Not so with UKIP. The media onslaught, the political ridicule, and the public exposés have done little to dent its popularity. If anything, UKIP’s standing in the polls has improved over the past few weeks. This weekend polls have been more mixed, perhaps a reflection of Farage’s ‘car crash’ interview on LBC last week; nevertheless few will be surprised if UKIP wins Thursday’s election.
What groups such as UKIP and the FN express is a new faultline in Europe’s political map. The postwar political system, built around the divide between social democratic and conservative parties, is being dismantled. Not only has this created new space for the populists, it is also transforming the very character of political space. In this post-ideological age, as politics has become reduced largely to a question of technocratic management rather than of social transformation, as mainstream parties abandon both their ideological attachments and their traditional constituencies, so large sections of the public has become disengagement from the political process, widening the gap between voters and the elite, and fostering disenchantment with the very idea of politics. That is why so many of the populist and far-right groups position themselves as ‘anti-political’ parties.
The new political faultline in Europe is not between left and right, between social democracy and conservatism, but between those who feel at home in – or at least are willing to accommodate themselves to – the post-ideological, post-political world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless. These kinds of divisions have always existed, of course. In the past, however, that sense of dispossession and voiceless could be expressed politically, particularly through the organizations of the left and of the labour movement. No longer. Economic crisis, the collapse of manufacturing industry, the atomisation of society, the neutering of trade unions, the cutting by social democratic parties of their ties with their old working class base, the scorn with which mainstream society today today of the idea of class-based politics – all have helped cut the bonds of solidarity and identity that once shaped working class communities, marginalized labour as a political voice, leaving many feeling voiceless and detached from the political process.
The result has been the creation of what many commentators in Britain, such as David Goodhart and the academics Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford, are calling the ‘left behind’ working class. In France, there has been much talk of ‘peripheral France’, a phrase coined by the social geographer Christophe Guilluy, whose books Fractures Françaises and Atlas des nouvelles fractures sociales en France, have caused considerable stir, to describe people ‘pushed out by the deindustrialization and gentrification of the urban centers’, who ‘live away from the economic and decision-making centers in a state of social and cultural non-integration’ and have come to ‘feel excluded’.
‘Left behind’ is perhaps an unfortunate phrase for the problem is not so much that people have been left behind as that there are large sections of society for whom the traditional mechanisms through which they asserted their political voice no longer function. European societies have become both more socially atomized and riven by identity politics. Atomization has played into the hands of the deracinated middle class. Identity politics have helped foster communities defined by faith, ethnicity or culture. For many working class communities, however, these two processes have both corroded the social bonds that once gave them strength and identity and dislocated their place in society.
The ‘left behind’ have suffered largely because of economic and political changes. But they have come to see their marginalization primarily as a cultural loss. In part, the same social and economic changes that have led to the marginalization of the ‘left behind’ have also made it far more difficult to view that marginalization in political terms. As the politics of ideology has given way to the politics of identity, so even the ‘working class’ has come to be seen primarily as a cultural category. The irony is that those who lost out in the breakdown of class-based and ideologically-driven politics now turn to the language of identity to express their discontent.
Because discontent is expressed in cultural, rather than, political terms, so it is often conveyed through hostility to immigration. As class identity has come to be seen as a cultural attribute, so those regarded as culturally different (the ‘Other’) have come to be perceived as threats. Immigration has become both a catch-all explanation for unacceptable social change and a symbol of the failure of the liberal elite to understand the views of voters. The EU, meanwhile, has become symbolic of the democratic deficit in many people’s lives, and of the distance (social, political and physical) between ordinary people and the political class.
The Front National began life as a virulently racist, far-right organization, that has rebranded itself in recent years as a pro-French, anti-EU party. UKIP began life as an anti-EU party that has repositioned itself through its hostility to immigration. Both now present themselves as the outsiders defending the interests of the marginalized and the powerless against the establishment. And both have primarily working class constituencies. According to Pascal Perrineau, professor of political science at Paris’ Sciences-Po university,‘The National Front has been the number one party among working class voters in France for more than a decade, with the exception of the 2007 presidential election’. Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin have shown that working class UKIP voters outnumber middle class voters – but that the reverse is true for Labour, historically the party of the working class. That someone like UKIP leader Nigel Farage, the son of a stockbroker, educated at Dulwich College, one of the most exclusive private schools in Britain, and a man who made his money as a City banker, should be seen as a ‘voice of the people’ tells us less about Farage and UKIP than about how despised and out of touch main politicians have become.
What makes the mainstream assault on UKIP and the FN particularly ineffective is that at the same time as attacking them as racist, mainstream politicians have themselves assiduously fostered fears about immigration and adopted populist anti-immigration policies. All this has merely confirmed the belief that the populists were right all along. It has engorged cynicism about mainstream politicians. And since immigration has not been responsible for the left behind being left behind, it has done nothing to assuage the sense of marginalization and voicelessness that many feel. Indeed, by stoking new fears about immigration, it has merely deepened the sense of grievance.
So, how do we challenge the populists? First, we need to stop being so obsessed by the politicians and the parties, and start dealing with the issues that lead many voters to support them. Yes, many of UKIP and FN policies are repellent, and many of their leaders hold obnoxiously racist, sexist and homophobic views. Many FN and UKIP supporters are hardcore racists. But many others are drawn to such parties for very different reasons – because these seem to be the only organizations that speak to their grievances and express their frustrations with mainstream politics. Given this, simply exposing UKIP or FN politicians as racists will change little, especially given that virtually all politicians are busy stoking fears about immigration. It is not that such exposés should not be done, but that they are futile if wielded as the principal tactic.
Engaging with the concerns of potential UKIP or FN voters, rather than simply dismissing them as racists, does not mean, however, caving into reactionary arguments or pandering to prejudices. It means, to the contrary, challenging them openly and robustly. Challenging the idea, for instance, that immigration is responsible for the lack of jobs and housing, or that lower immigration would mean a lower crime rate, or that Muslims constitute a social problem for the West. It means also challenging the rhetoric and policies not simply of UKIP or the FN but also of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, of the Parti Socialiste, the UMP and the Nouveau Centre. It is the anti-immigration rhetoric and policies of the mainstream parties that make people receptive to the anti-immigration rhetoric of the populists.
Finally, we need to establish new social mechanisms through which to link liberal ideas about immigration and individual rights with progressive economic arguments with a belief in the community and the collective. Those who today rightly bemoan the corrosion of collective movements and community organizations often also see the problem as too much immigration. Those who take a liberal view on immigration, and on other social issues, are often happy with a more individualised, atomised society. Until all three elements of a progressive outlook can be stitched together, and stitched into a social movement, then there will be no proper challenge to the populists.