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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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.