Whilst centrist parties ignore the warning signs and refuse to address the underlying issues, European populists march ever closer to government.
Politics undoubtedly comes in waves. For a long time, centrism was the word of the day. Whether we look at the Conservative Party abandoning socially conservative ideals or the Labour Party repudiating socialism, leaders on the left and right have sacrificed much of their ideologies on the altar of electoral success. Blair, for example, demanded the Labour Party drop support for rail re-nationalisation, despite the fact that the majority of voters back it. David Cameron demanded the Conservative Party “stop banging on about Europe”, despite the fact it turns out a majority of Britons back a British exit from the EU anyway. This is not a purely a British reaction, however, by any means. So-called “populism” has many different faces, often suggesting radically different proposals from either the left or the right.
Indeed, the definition of populism is simply “support for the concerns of ordinary people”: it is telling of our political debate that it has come to be used as an automatic insult or viewed as inherently bad. For many of our politicians, actually having to listen to the views of ordinary people would be terrifying. The EU referendum, for example, required decades of intense political lobbying and rebellion, and even then the change proposition found itself up against the might of the political establishment and most MPs.
If politicians allowed more referendums in the UK, opinion polls show that the death penalty would be reintroduced, the burka would be banned, and overseas aid would be scrapped. The idea that our government would let us vote directly on these issues is ludicrous since the political class know that the general population are far more socially conservative than themselves.
Indeed, Europe should act as a warning for us all. Most people in Britain do not want more mass immigration, are naturally socially conservative and are demanding clear self-governance. One only need look across the Channel to see what happens if these demands go unheeded: political anarchy.
Reeling from the economic crisis, Europe’s centrists are in disarray. In France, Marine Le Pen leads polls for the presidential election, as does Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. In Italy, the avowedly populist Five Star movement are on track to win the next election, having already captured the mayoralties of Rome and Turin earlier this year. Meanwhile, the hard right Alternative Für Deutschland have breached regional parliaments in Germany.
In Greece, Syriza swept into government promising to overturn austerity and defy Brussels. Their failure aside, people wanted this – and now Tsipras has given in to the EU, he sees his poll ratings slump accordingly. In Hungary and Slovakia, governments defy the migrant quotas in another example of anti-EU sentiment, with the Slovakian Prime Minister recently saying that Islam “has no place in Slovakia”.
The separation between the desires of the people and the whims of politicians can be seen clearly across Europe, with populist parties, either on the left or the right, ascendant across the majority of the continent. The problem comes not from populism in itself, as this articulates the demands of the people that many traditional parties choose to ignore rather than tackle. Rather, the problem arises when voters feel so marginalised they begin to back parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece, widely regarded as neo-Nazis, or Jobbik in Hungary who say they resent “Jewish attempts to buy up Hungary”.
Obviously, anti-Semites and Neo-Nazis having any level of power is deeply menacing, but this fails to realise the scale of the problem. Both these parties are the third parties of their respective countries, not some bit part players. Desperate and angry people travel from the centre to the political extremes when they feel marginalised and ignored, and centrist parties must make it their mission to dissuade people from lending clear cut extremists their support.
First and foremost, this means listening to what the public are saying over and over again. All across the continent, the key issues of immigration, security and sovereignty crop up repeatedly, as well as crucial issues such as the migrant crisis in certain areas. If at least some of the above issues are tackled in a firm, even-handed way, the far right and left will recede. It is only the failure of those spread across the centre to listen to desires expressed time and time again that has allowed these parties to flourish: if populist parties gain government, as seems likely in Italy and Austria, established parties will only have themselves to blame.
Populism itself can be an important and necessary tool to drag those whose lives are wholly encompassed by politics back to the real world where many people could not care less about politics, or look upon it only with cynicism and distrust. The EU referendum is just one example of an issue where the political direction of travel is now decided, which before would have remained a thorn in the side of British political life. Decent people all around the world should look at those such as Jobbik, extremists such as Golden Dawn and demagogues such as Trump – people not whom we simply disagree with but who are clearly unfit for public office – and realise how serious the situation is.
Yes, the people must be listened to and so-called “populism” must sometimes be engaged in. Not in an effort to oversimplify complicated issues but to address the widely held concerns people all across the western world are airing. To ignore these issues and hope they go away, as some parties have done in the past, is unthinkable: ignorance is not bliss and it cannot be wished away. That way lies chaos.