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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.