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Farage: more Grillo than Griffin

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

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

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.