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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.