Here in Britain, the populist right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party has completely upset the longstanding Conservative/Labour/Liberal Democrat apple cart of British politics and soared to levels of support of around 20%. As a result, the outcome of the general election next year is anyone’s guess.
But in terms of an electoral precedent in Europe, you need only look back to September’s election in Sweden and the strong performance of the Sweden Democrats – not to mention the Danish People’s Party in last summer’s European elections, not to mention the remarkable success of the Finns Party in the 2011 election in Finland…and then of course, beyond Scandinavia, the Freedom Party in Austria since around 1986 and the Front National in France since at least 1982…we’ve been here before (not least on this blog).
As such, you have to wonder about the ‘maverick’ credentials of UKIP leader Nigel Farage (and indeed UKIP in general). As we have argued here before, a healthy traditional scepticism of ideology in Britain (which saw it by and large resist the trend for extreme authoritarian government models as seen across Europe during the economic crisis of the 1930s) seems to have given way to a rather more convergent populist right-wing model (and one, at this stage at least, with apparently far more momentum than Oswald Mosley’s New Party of the 1930s). In this sense, culturally at least, you wonder if UKIP really are bucking any particular trend on a continental scale and whether they are not as much the United Kingdom Independence Party as the United Kingdom Just Like Anywhere Else Party.
But that is not to belittle the success of UKIP in polls and at the ballot box – certainly not recently, anyway. Nor their contemporaries on the populist right spectrum in continental Europe, for that matter. The Sweden Democrats performed so well in September’s election that they once again served as a spoke in the wheel in preventing either the centre-left or centre-right blocs from forming a majority coalition (admittedly that sounds like a contradiction in terms).
There is little doubt that there was burgeoning dissatisfaction in Sweden with outgoing Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and his Moderate-led coalition, especially on factors such as unemployment. Yet this simply didn’t translate into support for the Social Democrats in a way which would have once been considered a natural response (you only have to look at their far more convincing returns to power in 1982 and 1994, vote-wise, for evidence of this). Instead, the Social Democrats have to hope that a minority government with the Greens really is going to operate well in legislative terms. At the same time, they surely have to wonder if the Sweden Democrats, led by Jimmie Åkesson, don’t pose a threat to their disaffected voters.
Much the same can be said of the UK. The Guardian this week rightly nailed a key issue that has probably been latent (though perhaps less evident) since UKIP’s breakthrough in the European elections of 2004 – that UKIP are now not just getting votes from disillusioned traditional Labour voters, they’re consciously targeting those voters. The centre-left should be making hay out of concerns about wage stagnation, employment security, executive pay, food banks, zero-hours contracts, the future of the National Health Service and everything else. But it seems remarkably mute on such themes.
The more Labour fails to respond to the ebullient Farage (who has expertly tapped voter discontent), the more they face the prospect of (at best) a default minority government of their own with no convincing mandate or relief from the ongoing cultural right-wing pressure cooker or (at worst) another five years in opposition in which a Conservative-led government (in alliance with UKIP?) further validates, and builds on, the uncompromising economic and social agenda set out since 2010. Maybe Labour leader Ed Miliband needs to start looking to Sweden for some lessons (and ask why new Social Democrat prime minister Stefan Löfven didn’t secure a convincing mandate two months ago) if he is going to break what looks like a very familiar pattern Europe-wide.
*Regarding the ‘quick’ in the headline here. These are ‘quick’ thoughts by my standards. I know I take time to elaborate on things. I acknowledge it but don’t make any apology for it.