How we can beat the far right

Image of Simon Kuper

There is a story about Europe that says we are living in a rerun of the 1930s. According to this narrative, the populist right is rising again as crisis-hit Europeans look for scapegoats. Indeed, rightwing populist parties have polled more than or near one-fifth of the vote during the crisis in countries as tranquil as Finland and Switzerland. Already the populists are poisoning political debate, by pushing mainstream parties to take far-right paranoid, xenophobic views seriously. Now they aim to graduate to government.

But perhaps we worry too much. A fascinating new report by Counterpoint, the London-based research and advisory group, provides an unhysterical analysis of rightwing populism in Europe today. Merging recent data on voting in France, Finland and the Netherlands with previous surveys from around Europe, Counterpoint identifies who is voting for these parties and why. The report helps us see what strategies the populist right will use to grow – and what strategies we can use to counter them.

A first insight from the report: Europe’s far right hasn’t risen en masse during the crisis. Since 2008, these parties have surged in some countries, notably Finland, France and Hungary, but they have declined in Denmark, Italy and Switzerland, and gained no traction in Britain. Geert Wilders’ PVV party slumped in last week’s Dutch elections.

However, the far right’s rise could yet come. These parties have a vast pool of potential new voters. Many women and older people in particular don’t yet vote for these parties, but sympathise with their views. These “potential radicals”, as the report describes them, still often regard the far right as thuggish and embarrassing. But “women are potentially the next obvious target” for these parties, warns Counterpoint. The populists are wooing new voters by trying to look respectable, which usually means ditching undertones of violence and anti-semitism. France’s Front National has even chosen a female leader. If these parties can “detoxify” their brands, they will surge.

But our strategy must be to peel off the large, weak rumps of their support: the far-right voters whom the report calls “reluctant radicals”. These people aren’t committed to far-right parties, but often choose them only during the campaign. “Reluctant radicals” make up the majority of Europe’s rightwing populist voters. Counterpoint calls them “rightwing populism’s Achilles heel”. If mainstream parties can win these people back, then the populists become just fringe parties chiefly serving angry young men.

Winning back the reluctant radicals is very doable, says Counterpoint. The first thing is to understand who they are. Most of Europe’s far-right voters share one particular characteristic: low education. For the first time ever, western Europe’s economy has little use for lesser-educated people. Many of them are suffering. No wonder that very few Dutch far-right voters attended university, or that the British National Party polls best among semi-skilled and unskilled manual labourers.

The next question is: what can we offer these people? In the last French election, Nicolas Sarkozy promised “far-right lite”, but there’s surely little point in the mainstream aping odious parties. Nor can we rewind globalisation or return to monoethnic societies or painlessly dissolve the European Union. But there are some things we can do for these voters.

For a start, the political elite must punish any corruption within its ranks. For the far right, elite-bashing is as essential as immigrant-bashing. Marine Le Pen in France exploited the Sarkozy government’s blatant proximity to money, and the Socialist Party’s shielding of Dominique Strauss-Kahn when party leaders presumably knew of his sexual controversies. If mainstream parties can avoid scandals, they can then sit back and watch far-right parties suffer thuggery-related scandals: for instance, one Dutch far-right MP turned out to have terrorised neighbours with physical threats and cries of: “I’ll piss in your letter box.”

Another strategy: we should continue to stigmatise far-right parties. That’s because stigmatisation works. Nearly four out of five French Front National voters hesitated to vote for the party this year because they felt its candidate was stigmatised. Many other voters were presumably deterred. We should show respect to far-right voters, but not to their parties.

Then there are some local strategies. Each country has its own type of far-right voters, each with different problems. For instance, says Counterpoint, French Front National voters tend to live on the edges of cities, where they have poor healthcare, transport and schools. These people feel literally and emotionally disconnected from the Republic. Improving their local services could make a big difference.

Lastly, our best long-term strategy against the far right is to educate more people. For reasons we don’t quite understand, higher education – and even the high-school baccalauréat in France – seems to inoculate voters against rightwing populism. More grants for poorer university students might help. Then, Catherine Fieschi of Counterpoint told me, “You’ll have bought yourself a citizenry that is much less likely to support this kind of party.”

Because these parties have no answers, they are eminently beatable.

“Recapturing the Reluctant Radical: How to Win Back Europe’s Populist Vote”, by Catherine Fieschi, Marley Morris and Lila Caballero, is published by Counterpoint

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