Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
In the latest European elections where populist parties have surged in support, right-wing offshoot of the mainstream People’s Party, Vox, made impressive gains in Spanish parliamentary elections held at the end of last month.
Support for centre-leaning parties has drained away in favour of radical populist groups from both sides of the ideological divide. What has happened in Spain is far from a one-off in Europe. In 2017, far-right Geert Wilders (pictured below), who has been charged with inciting religious discrimination, led his PVV party to become the second most popular party in the Dutch parliament. In Sweden, the national-conservative Swedish Democrats achieved nearly 20% of the popular vote in the 2018 general election.
The last few years have overall seen a monumental rise in populism in Europe, mostly from the radical right wing. Parties with unsavoury ideological positions have emerged from the shadows, with large swathes of the public lining up to vote for them. Contrary to claims by the liberal elite that this kind of new politics is “fascist”, voters who have backed populist movements are calling for more democracy, not less, highlighted most notably by the Brexit campaign slogan, ‘Take back control’. However, populist growth does threaten certain aspects of our societies, from parliamentary uncertainty leading to years of political deadlock, to the normalisation of unacceptable views on religion, LGBT+ awareness, and minority rights.
It would be a mistake, however, to sideline populists, or dismiss them as troublemakers. Populists should instead be seen as movements which represent people who legitimately feel left behind. Whilst populist parties often sell socially conservative policies, in recent years leaders like Marine Le Pen in France have adopted more fiscally liberal policies such as broadening the scope of the welfare state to protect workers, in an attempt to redistribute wealth and strengthen the nation. The practices of traditionally left-of-centre policies being adopted by right-wing populists help to highlight the irrelevance of the right/left divide which has dominated politics for so long, and aids in understanding the broad scope for support populists have managed to achieve across Europe.
It’s also wrong to dismiss populist concerns as symptoms of other problems which traditional parties find easier to talk about. Concerns around immigration, for example, cannot always be addressed by economic policies to mitigate its effects, as proven by the failure of both Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Remain side during the EU Referendum, which both sought to address cultural concerns by either promising an improved financial situation for supporters, or threatening economic collapse if the electorate opted for the alternative. As polls have repeatedly shown, the problems lie deeper: immigration in and of itself is an issue that needs to be dealt with. While Brexit or a border wall may not be the answer, voters have been relieved that somebody takes their concerns seriously, rather than dismiss them as peripheral symptoms.
Populists and their legitimate concerns should be taken seriously. If mainstream parties continue in failing to address the cultural and social concerns of voters, then voters will, in even larger numbers than have already, turn towards a more radical alternative. In other words, people who, they feel, are listening to people like them. People receptive to such movements are statistically more likely to come from working class backgrounds with college-level education who’ve felt the brunt of the issues ignored by the mainstream, rather than middle-class graduates. Part of this reluctance from the mainstream to talk about the issues concerning real people is the increasingly insular makeup of political institutions. Whilst the left will welcome the figures which no doubt demonstrate impressive progression, including record numbers of women in the British parliament, more cabinet and government ministers than ever come from millionaire and private school backgrounds. The problem has moved from the glass ceiling to the “class ceiling”, but the metropolitan elite refuses to address this crisis because of the preservationary nature of the establishment.
Yet so long as mainstream politicians fail to address the real issues affecting real people including immigration, trade, and the seemingly unstoppable wave of cultural and economic globalisation, populism will continue to rise, and movements which make many of us uncomfortable will surge in support. Populism can be dangerous, as we have seen through the rise of radical parties across Europe, but there’s hope that the pressure they put on the mainstream will force the hand of establishment parties into making them address the concerns of the people, and changing and democratising politics for good.