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  1. Politics
21 November 2014

Why anti-establishment parties are here to stay

Voters who feel betrayed by the modern world do not want tinkering at the edges of the status quo.

By Tim Wigmore

Still they surge on. Almost two years after David Cameron’s promise of an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was meant to destroy the Ukip threat for good, the party continues to poll around 15 per cent. Now Ukip have claimed Rochester and Strood, the constituency with the 271st most ‘Ukip friendly’ demographics.

The Ukip phenomenon can be understood in many ways. But at its core it is a manifestation of the disconnect that voters feel towards the two main parties. In 1951, 80 per cent of the electorate actively voted for the Conservatives or Labour. By 2010, that figure was a puny 42 per cent.

It is easy to blame the two main parties. But a similar process is happening throughout Europe. In Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, Peter Mair asserts that, “the age of party democracy has passed”, warning of “self-generating momentum whereby the parties become steadily weaker and democracy becomes even more stripped down.” 77.8 per cent of the elections with the lowest turnouts in Western Europe between 1950 and 2009 occurred after 1990. 60 per cent of the most volatile elections were also in this period. So many of the problems faced by David Cameron and Ed Miliband are not of their own doing. They are the product of voters feeling powerless and ignored by the modern world.

Ukip are not the only beneficiaries. The SNP’s membership has quadrupled since the independence referendum. Even the Green Party is rising: its UK-wide membership has gone up by 60 per cent in 2014.

These parties have something fundamental in common. They do not buy into the overarching system by which politics is governed. They offer bold solutions – leaving the European Union, terminating the Act of Union, and abandoning austerity – with no room for compromise. They do not accept that Britain has to be governed from within a straitjacket.

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The disconnect between Labour voters and its traditional working-class base was put into new focus by its poor third place in Rochester and Strood – and that infamous tweet by Emily Thornberry.  

In many ways Ed Miliband has attempted to position Labour as a populist party of the left. But a genuinely populist option would surely not have such an unwavering pro-European stance.

This might go a little way to explaining why Miliband’s assessment that the banking crisis of 2008 would create a left-wing moment has not proved correct. Indeed, it is populist parties of the right that are surging, in the UK, France, Denmark and beyond.

One notable exception is in Spain where Podemos, who were only founded this year, now top some opinion polls. It is no coincidence that the party advocates repealing the Lisbon Treaty. This means that, unlike Labour and the rest of the mainstream European left, they reject the idea that politicians only have narrow parameters of manouevre in the 21st century.

The crisis of the European left can be traced not just to austerity, but also to the lack of options it is seen as offering. The mainstream left has embraced mass immigration and the increased power of the European Union, two policies that the political class has accepted in spite of public opinion.

Labour’s problem is particularly acute because its support for EU and immigration fit into a broader critique of the party as an elitist project for the political class. Caricaturing Labour as the party of Oxbridge-educated spads who live in London – as is true of Ed Miliband – is central to Ukip’s strategy for targeting Labour’s core vote. Unless Labour can do a better job re-engaging the wider electorate – an emphasis on selecting more local candidates and experience beyond Westminster would be a start – it will remain vulnerable to this attack.

But the rise of Ukip and anti-establishment parties goes far deeper than anger at the PPE brigade. It cannot be that incompetent politicians lead all mainstream parties in Europe. Here is the rub: swathes of the electorate blame globalisation, of which the EU and immigration are two obvious manifestations of, for making their lives worse. They have no appetite to vote for parties, of the centre-left or centre-right, that they see only as offering more of the same.

Voters who feel betrayed by the modern world do not want tinkering at the edges of a status quo they think has failed them. They want to feel empowered, not like their voices are overridden by faceless multinational bodies, from the EU to the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and beyond. This is why Ukip voters, by a margin of four to one, would like to “turn the clock back to the way Britain was 20-30 years ago”: they want to feel like their voices matter again. Rochester and Strood is the latest evidence of what should long have been apparent: mimicking Ukip is a wrong-headed, self-defeating policy for the Conservatives and Labour. Many Ukip voters are now gone for good. Messy multi-party politics, in Britain and the rest of Europe, is the new normal.    

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