Farage: more Grillo than Griffin

UKIP is the British version of a Europe-wide rejection of mainstream, established politics.

For many, UKIP’s success in the county council elections last week is the latest in a string of stunning results for the extreme right across Europe. Parties that reject multiculturalism and the EU in favour of more assertive nationalism are growing in popularity, and Nigel Farage’s party is the UK edition: BNP-lite, a radical right wing party that appeals to the electorate’s dislike of the European Union and fears about immigration.

But there is another – unlikely – political insurgent that Farage shares more in common with than Nick Griffin: the radical comedian-turned politician from Italy, Beppe Grillo. Both are best viewed as primarily anti-establishment populist movements, neither obviously left nor right-wing.

Populist parties pit the good, honest, ordinary voter against the out-of-touch, liberal, mainstream political elite. They claim to represent the former against the latter, an authentic and common sense voice in a world of spin and self-interest.

It is not the extreme right that is on the march across Europe, but a much wider rejection of mainstream, established politics. Sometimes that takes the form of Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders. But the economic crisis is also lifting the anti-mainstream left, such as Mélenchon in France, Syriza in Greece and most obviously Beppe Grillo in Italy.

Of course, on several specific policies they are a world apart. Grillo is furiously anti-austerity, and is passionate about green energy. But for both, specific policies probably matter less than the broader line that politics is dominated by a identikit group of cosseted elites whose ideas can be separated by a cigarette paper.

Self-interested and self-perpetuating, they have forgotten ordinary people, and cannot be trusted. Because the European Union is especially distant and unaccountable, both Grillo and Farage want out, with democratic power being wrestled from the Eurocrats and handed back to the people.

Beppe plays the outsider: he proclaims that political parties are finished, and calls Berlusconi a "psycho sex dwarf’. Mr Farage, you may have noticed, increasingly talks about "the professional political classes", rather than Europe, often with pint in hand. As the academic Rob Ford as pointed out, immigration is far from the main concern UKIP voters have.

Similar too, is their support and sudden prominence. Both UKIP and Grillo’s party scored around 25 per cent in their respective elections this year, and this is because their approach to politics and assessment of the problem strikes a very large chord. According to the 2012 Eurobarometer poll, 82 per cent of UK public "tend not to trust" political parties; 77 per cent "tend not to trust" the national government.

Membership of political parties has evaporated (there are now three times more Twitter followers of Tory MPs than there are formal party members). The disenchantment reaches into the broader establishment too: 45 per cent of us "tend not to trust the justice system" and 79 per cent "tend not to trust" the mainstream media. The scores in Italy are remarkably similar.

As with most political terms, 'populism' is malleable, elastic. It is sometimes deployed to discredit, describing an overly simplistic form of politics which stirs up emotions and directs it unfairly at (usually foreign) scapegoats. Equally though, it can be an important check on politics that gets too far out of sync with those it is meant to represent, a sort of democratic nudge. Often it is both.

Either way, with turnout falling, especially in local and European ballots, winning elections is increasingly about mobilising voters. Any party presenting a radical alternative to the status quo has avery large potential support base. Throw in modern tools of communication – both Beppe Grillo and another outsider-populist George Galloway used social media to communicate and get their vote out – and UKIP-like results will become more common. Farage called it a sea change. He is probably right.

"Farage increasingly talks about 'the professional political classes', rather than Europe, often with pint in hand." Photograph: Getty Images.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.