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  1. Politics
27 November 2014

Leader: The bonfire of the elites

Mainstream parties are under siege from populist parties on the far left and right, while a new tide of nationalism is also sweeping Europe.

By New Statesman

Across Europe, the old order is fragmenting. While the UK Independence Party preoccupies the Conservatives and Labour, its rise reflects what is happening in other countries. The cast changes but the story – disaffected voters throwing out elites, of all parties – remains essentially the same.

Mainstream political parties are in long-run decline. The average party membership rate in Europe is 4.7 per cent of voters, compared with almost 15 per cent in the 1960s. Just 0.7 per cent of the British electorate today belongs to the Conservative and Labour parties.

With the weakening of tribal and class loyalties, voting in elections has come to seem less important. Voters have despaired at parties controlled by professional politicians clustering in the centre ground. Yet, as public trust has collapsed, elections have become more volatile.

The economic crisis has exacerbated the disconnect between the electorates and the elites. It has brought mass unemployment and the fear that accompanies it, and exposed how little politicians can do to protect the losers of globalisation. Voters’ insecurity has been exploited by the populist right, as our profile of the Front National’s leader, Marine Le Pen, explores on page 24. As Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, said in a fine recent speech: “Fragmentation seems to be a new norm in politics across much of Europe and the wider world.”

Yet the centre is not only under siege from the populist right. Nationalism is on the rise, in Scotland, and in Catalonia, where 80 per cent of the electorate recently voted for secession in a non-binding referendum. Radical-left parties in Spain (Podemos) and Greece (Syriza) have exploited the unpopularity of the EU and of austerity to surge ahead in their national polls.

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These insurgent forces have been emboldened by the age of mass communication. Social media allows charismatic leaders such as Ms Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Pablo Iglesias, the ponytailed leader of Podemos, to bypass conventional channels of communication. Euroscepticism, of different forms, is a common thread binding the successful populists of left and right. It is significant that Podemos, though not advocating full withdrawal from the EU, wants to repeal the Lisbon Treaty and, in so doing, empower voters by reclaiming greater sovereignty for the national government.

Britain has been comparatively late to embrace the tumult that characterises politics across Europe. To an extent, our elites have forced the crisis on themselves. They have allowed a chasm to emerge between voters and parties that are becoming the preserve of identikit career politicians.

But perhaps the elites can be afforded some sympathy. As Tim Wigmore writes on page 30: “It cannot be that all mainstream parties in western Europe are led by incompetent politicians.” That they all face similar problems shows that globalisation has created a constituency of “left-behind” voters.

Britain faces the prospect of joining much of the Continent in experiencing permanent government by coalition. As democrats, we welcome the rise of the smaller parties – even those we disagree with. More Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru MPs would enhance the House of Commons, reflecting our pluralistic society. It would also serve as a reminder of the urgent case for reforming the voting system, a relic of the old two-party age. 

Lewis Hamilton’s political choices

The Guardian asks whether Lewis Hamilton, the new Formula 1 world champion, is unpopular “because he is black”. It is admirable that Mr Hamilton has excelled in a sport that has been dominated by affluent white Europeans and South Americans. But surely his relative unpopularity has less to do with his ethnicity than with his self-imposed exile in Monaco. The trouble with Mr Hamilton is that, like the former Tour de France champion Chris Froome and many other “sports stars”, he is a tax exile who has very little interaction with the country he purports to represent. With his diamond earrings, tattoos and celebrity girlfriends, Mr Hamilton is the embodiment of the modern super-rich sports star: a member of the deracinated international plutocracy who has never uttered a political sentence of interest or significance. 

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