How Europe's far-right will - and won't - flourish in 2014

While the more established parties, such as the Front National and the Sweden Democrats, look set to enjoy the next year, others are likely to remain firmly on the fringe.

Thirty years ago in February, a relatively unknown French politician by the name of Jean-Marie Le Pen was invited onto a popular television programme named The Hour of Truth. The event, which introduced Le Pen’s beliefs to French voters, became a pivotal moment in the history of his party, the Front National. Shortly afterwards it took 2.2 million votes at the 1984 European elections and over the next three decades became a major political force.
 
Three decades on from Le Pen's debut, Europe is braced for the next set of EU elections, which many are predicting will hand fresh gains to the far-right. This includes Marine Le Pen (Jean-Marie’s daughter) who recently finished first in a poll of how the French intend to vote at the elections in May. Alongside unemployment, austerity and rising inequality, today’s far-right is also likely to benefit from a collapse of public trust in established politics. Consider this: since the crisis the percentage of voters across Europe who trust the EU has fallen from almost 60% to barely 30%. And as I write this today, only one in four say they trust their national leaders. In short, it could be argued that Europe's far-right has never had it so good.
 
So what do the next 12 months hold for the far-right? Attention will understandably focus on the European elections which are an 'easy hit' for populist outsiders. As academics have shown, unlike national contests they tend to be characterised by low turnout, indifference among voters and stronger protest sentiment against national politicians, all of which fuels the far-right. While headlines will most likely focus on the new alliance between Le Pen and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, 2013 also saw the return of the Austrian Freedom Party, formerly led by (the now deceased) Jörg Haider. The party recovered from a downturn to win 20% of the national vote and 40 seats in parliament, a reversal of fortunes that was especially striking in Haider’s old stronghold of Carinthia, where its vote jumped from 7% to 17%.
 
But such gains should also be set alongside cases of failure. The far-right has prospered amidst crisis in countries like Austria, France and the Netherlands but has stalled or fallen back in places like Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain. The top of the German far-right is in disarray following the resignation of one of its leaders. Despite record youth unemployment, the far-right in Spain is insignificant outside of a few local areas, while the collapse of the British National Party amidst recession and austerity, and then the English Defence League, underscores the point that the far-right’s fortunes do not depend simply on the presence of a crisis. 
 
In fact, evidence-based predictions of what will happen over the next 12 months paint a very different picture from the conventional wisdom that tells us the far-right is running riot across the continent. Based on results at the most recent election, the academic Cas Mudde estimates that only 12 of 28 states in the EU will see far-right parties enter the European Parliament. It is estimated they will take around 34 seats –or between 4% and 6.5% of all seats. Even if we add on all the other non-far-right but still anti-EU populist parties –like the True Finns in Finland, the Alternative for Germany, the UK Independence Party and even Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement in Italy- we are still left with a highly diverse collection of parties that are unlikely to win more than 15-20% of all seats, and even less likely to build a cohesive force. A record result, notes Mudde, but hardly a serious hindrance.
 
In many respects, the more interesting predictions concern elections away from the EU. The next year will see important local elections in France, where Marine Le Pen hopes to win "hundreds, maybe a thousand" local seats. Her party's grassroots machine has an impressive track record, having won a local by-election in October that saw her candidate take 53% of the vote. Le Pen’s 'detox strategy' is increasing her party’s appeal within French society, and the local elections are the next step in building a major breakthrough. There are also local elections in the Netherlands, where 2013 saw Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom recover from a difficult start to emerge as the most popular. Nationally, Wilders and the PVV are currently predicted to win more national seats than any other party, and are also set for a strong 2014.
 
Three other contests should also be watched closely. First, around the same time as the European elections are local elections in Greece across over 300 municipalities as well as a highly symbolic Mayoral election in Athens that Golden Dawn plans to contest. In 2013, support for the neo-Nazi party peaked at an average of over 12% in the polls (although some put this higher). While support then slumped following the murder of an anti-fascist rapper, it later rebounded. In December 2013, Golden Dawn averaged 11% in the polls - 4 points higher than their result in the 2012 national election. Some Greeks have simply not been put off by public sympathies for Nazism, involvement with murder and the beating of migrants. Assuming this support holds steady, and Golden Dawn is not forcibly disbanded by the state, then in 2014 Europe faces the very real prospect of Golden Dawn representatives in the European Parliament, local councils and enjoying a strong result in Athens.
 
Second, a national election in Hungary scheduled for the spring is likely to see a decent result for the virulently anti-Roma and anti-Semitic Jobbik movement, which has links to the BNP. Jobbik entered the Hungarian parliament for the first time in 2010 after receiving over 800,000 votes, or over 16% of the national vote. While support then dropped, Jobbik has continued to average around 13% among decided voters (although a large number of Hungarians remain undecided). There is little reason why this movement that is closely linked to paramilitary groups will not entrench its position as a significant force in Hungarian politics, and retain or increase its three seats in the European Parliament. Then, in September, a national election in Sweden will see the Sweden Democrats -a party rooted in neo-Nazism - attempt to build on its result in 2010 when it attracted 5.7% of the vote and entered parliament for the first time with 20 seats. The most recent polls put them on around 10% and predict 30 seats.
 
Overall, then, Europe’s far-right will remain very much in the news throughout 2014. But it is also important to recognise that while some of the more established movements look set to enjoy the next year, others are likely to remain firmly on the fringe – and despite the crisis. If the last few years have taught us anything about this toxic force in European politics, it is that while economic hardship may help certain parties at certain points, it is by no means the full story as to why some on the far-right are on their way to the mainstream while others have been left on the margins. 
 
Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He tweets @GoodwinMJ
French Front National leader Marine Le Pen speaks during a party meeting in Paris on November 17, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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