Opinion: US analysis of how to beat “far right” UKIP – be consistent

Washington DC based think tank, The Marshall Fund, which promotes understanding between North America and Europe, has produced a new research paper: “The Unstoppable Far Right?” that looks at UKIP in Britain and similar parties in Germany (Afd) and the Netherlands (PVV).

The paper compares “euro-sceptical right-populist” parties in these countries and concludes that what mainstream political parties say and do has a big impact on whether people vote for these parties. The “rise” of these parties is by no means inevitable: the PVV went significantly backwards at the 2014 European elections.

Two components of these parties appeal are identified: “neo-nationalism” and “anti-elitism”. They pitch themselves as “for the nation”, which they say is a homogenous community, and “against the political establishment” whom they blame for the effects of globalisation and other social changes. Immigration, the EU and multiculturalism are identified by these parties as threats to the common man and woman. These characteristics amount to striking similarities between these parties despite the widely different histories of the countries in which they operate.

A right populist party rises if the following happens over a period of a few years:

  1. Moderate parties repeatedly talk about the European Union and this is covered by the national media,
  2. A major established political party appears in the national media to adopt a more sceptical position towards the European Union, and
  3. That party then appears in the national media to withdraw from that sceptical position.

Anyone with knowledge of British politics since about 2007 will recognise all three steps have been taken by the UK Conservatives (talking about Europe, taking a more sceptical position by leaving the EPP and promising a referendum, and them not having a referendum). The paper uses quantitative analysis of media coverage and the pro/anti-European positions of parties set out in graphs to show that the electoral rise of UKIP directly coincides with the third step. It also sets out how the same process has happened in Germany: CDU leaders making sceptical statements then the party re-asserting its support for Europe created a gap for AfD.

UK Conservatives are not the only ones to blame. For a time in the late 2000s Liberal Democrat policy on a Lisbon referendum appeared to be inconsistent and calculated tactically to cause political problems for the Conservatives – driving Tories towards steps two and three, the incoherence and inconsistency that now creates space for UKIP.

But in the Netherlands, the right-populists have been pushed back. Prime Minister Rutte’s VVD (economic Liberals) took a more Eurosceptic line than they had previously and stuck to it in government. VVD’s support of EU membership has been total but the party has argued for budget cuts and (not unreasonable) EU reforms. It did not take a Eurosceptic line that it was then seen to abandon. The result was that the VVD has increased its strength and the right-populists have declined.

VVD have beaten PVV, whereas the Tories and CDU lost ground to UKIP and AfD, not because the VVD are more Eurosceptic than the Tories and CDU. In fact, they are more pro-European than the big UK and German centre-right parties. The difference is that the Tories and CDU took more Eurosceptic position that they were seen to resile from. It is the extent of the u-turn not the quantity of pro or anti-Europeanism that drives up support for the populist-right.

The point is that mainstream parties have the capacity to frame the debate and influence what people think about issues. If they take very anti-European positions they legitimise those positions. If they then appear to withdraw, then those positions are not de-legitimised, but the party is.

Moreover, mainstream parties do not have to adopt the positions of the populist-right. In fact doing so would just legitimise them more. But what they have to do is not take a position that they aren’t going to stick to; mainstream parties have to be consistent.

In this review I cannot do justice to the detail of this excellent paper. Its findings lead me to an optimistic conclusion. UKIP and other such parties can be beaten if mainstream parties are consistent about the positions they take on Europe. This requires strong and principled leadership.

The Marshall Fund has done democrats in Europe a useful service by providing this interesting research.

* Antony Hook was a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England (2019) and has practised as a barrister since 2003. He is currently Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Kent County Council.

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  • So breaking a pledge as just about the first noticeable thing we did in government was not a good idea?

  • I have not read the report by the Washington DC based think tank, The Marshall Fund.

    I am amused by the thought of a tank tank with that name — in this country it is Centre Forum and The Orange Book Mob that are resourced by rather different Marshall funds.

    It is not clear to me from the article above (Jonathan Hunt may want to elaborate) how much attention has been given in the report to the overlap between UKIP and the Conservative Party.
    Talking about UKIP as the Far Right as if The Conservatives are all middle of the road is misleading.

    I do not share Anthony Hook’s optimistic conclusion which he summarised as –“..UKIP and other such parties can be beaten if mainstream parties are consistent about the positions they take on Europe. This requires strong and principled leadership.”

    Where is this strong and principled leadership going to come from ? — certainly not from Cameron and Clegg on past and present evidence.
    Who are the “mainstream partIes” ? Can you call the Liberal Democrats a mainstream party any more when it cannot even score 1% in a parliamentary by-election and it’s leader goes into hiding to avoid answering questions on the subject?
    Cameron’s Conservatives are a mainstream party but they have no real desire to do anything about UKIP other than to encourage and cuddle up to them, looking to the day when they can re-unite as one far Right Party.

    Is Anthony Hook leaving it to the other mainstream Parties, Labour and The Greens, to see off UKIP?
    I have a lot of time for the leader of The Greens but I am not expecting her to finish the threat from The Far Right single-handedly even with what in her case is quite clearly “strong and principled” leadership.
    Which leaves Ed Milband and The Labour Party.
    Unfortunately it is impossible to have a sensible discussion in LDV about Ed Mliband because many contributors cannot resist the chance to jump up onto every Tory and media bandwagon of criticism aimed at him as part of their build up to the General Election. So I will not even try.

    There are many more MPs in the Conservative Party who are Far Right than there are UKIP MPs and that will remain the case after 8th May.
    The leading figures and the men with the fat cheque books who fund them are all Conservative Party renegades.

    A first practical step for Liberal Democrat MPs to deal with the Far Right would be to stop propping up a Right-Wing Government.

  • But Americans think tanks like this have not been able to stop the rise of the Tea Party in the US, which has now taken over the Republican Party. Perhaps they should worry about them before they tell us what to do. The Tea party too blame global forces, and scape goat immigrants the poor, the weak. Their supporters walk around denouncing the welfare state, while waving placards saying ” keep the govt off my social security.”

    The tea party is funded by the rich. The Koch brothers fund it and push a libertarian philosophy which benefits said billionaires. UKIP is very secret about where it gets it’s funding but it will come from the same rich owners of capital. The far right wing parties that are springing up all over Europe are an insurance policy for the elites. They know Neo Liberalism is not working for the majority of the population. Things are only going to get worse for many people. So they offer the people a fake populism built around cutting hand outs to the poor. ( but keeping hand out s for the rich).

    Nigel Farage was a privately educated ex stock broker. The idea he gives a stuff about the people at the bottom of society or even the working class is a joke. He won’t in any way challenge the 1%. He supports more of the hideous trade deals that will strip away democracy and rights of national govts, and hand them to the global owners of capital. (So much for national sovereignty) The 1% global elites are making sure that the anger and fear are turned to their advantage. People think they are voting for change. Actually they are voting for ever more Neo liberalism. Good luck with that!

  • Or you could just adopt a sensibly expansionist economic policy, rather than back Tory austerity and years of stagnation! That is what has led to the rise of UKIP.

    Growth was 2% when we came in, then, post-austerity, with the Tories frightening the life out of private investment, it was 0% for three whole years, and not much more the next year. (Tax receipts thus fell, adversely affecting the deficit and national Debt). Whatever growth they have engineered pre-election, let no-one be in any doubt: austerity will redouble if they get in again, and the result will be stagnation or even depression.

    Clegg, Alexander, Laws and co signed away Lib Dem economic policy, on which we fought the last election, in the blink of an eye, and for what? A tax cut for low and middle earners which has not even offset the losses due to inflation (some 15% during this Parliament) for most people! Epic fail. new leadership required.

  • Daniel Henry 28th Nov '14 - 2:42pm

    Reading this article, I felt like the think tank may be mistaking symptoms for causes.

    Did flip flopping cause the rise in extreme parties or is a symptom of the same root cause that is being left unaddressed?

  • This strikes me as a very credible article. What do we do to articulate a position which supports Britain’s place in the EU? I can see UKIP mobilising a load of irrational fears which are not easily answered with well-informed (and inevitably rather complex) information about the EU. I wonder whether Scotland’s keenness to join the EU, if the indoendnce referendum had gone the other way, offers something to build on?

  • I also find this article credible and the report certainly deserves reading.
    Whilst I don’t disagree with what has been said, my take on the findings is slightly different, asking if the key finding: ” It is the extent of the u-turn not the quantity of pro or anti-Europeanism that drives up support for the populist-right.” has more general applicability, so is this only true of support for the “populist-right” or does it hold true for other causes and hence we could replace “Europeanism” with something else.

  • Doing U-turns harms politicians’ credibility.

    This is news?

  • I have no opinion on the analysis but I had a giggle at “be consistent” it reminded me of parent looking after child or dog owner telling dog Sit. Not that sure adults will take kindly be consistent good one

  • Two things – in traditional internet style I’m commenting having not read this report! (but will 🙂

    1) “A right populist party rises if the following happens over a period of a few years:” This sounds more like analysis than a prediction
    2) This is happening despite and at the same time as support for EU membership has risen.

  • Alex from Carlisle 29th Nov '14 - 1:21pm

    My advice, for what it’s worth: You certainly won’t beat UKIP by trying to silence them from speaking like your allies at the University of East Anglia, Timea Suli and convicted UAF thug Liam McCafferty are trying to do.

    Trying to block someone’s – anyone’s – right to speak looks ugly to everyone else outside the LibDem bubble and cements in peoples minds the impression of a party of illiberal liberal hypocrites.

  • Jayne Mansfield 29th Nov '14 - 8:27pm

    @ Alex from Carlisle.

    I wouldn’t dream of trying to silence UKIP supporters.

    Are you claiming that there was an outright ban on UKIP speaking at the UEA? Are you claiming that in some way correct procedures were not followed?

    It is my understanding that it was agreed that the event should take place, providing that there is a debate, with a speaker offering an alternative viewpoint to that of the UKIP speaker. Am I wrong in thinking that?

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