Most people are aware of the meteoric rise of right wing populism across the West at the moment. It has been or is rising with rapid pace in almost every country that can be called a ‘western liberal democracy’ and is seeing parties that once were consigned to mere single figure percentages of support, now reaching strong third places or level pegging with the main parties, sometimes even surpassing them.
Norbert Hofer, the runner-up of the recent Austrian presidential election, has been the best example of this. While some may say that Trump is the best example, I would disagree. He piggybacked onto an already established party. Hoffer has led his party from relative obscurity, to coming a very close second in the Austrian presidential election. His party is home to some of the worst kind of race baiting zealots. Yet he came incredibly close to winning, and his party is set for a strong showing in the Austrian Parliament elections. The same can be said for Geert Wilders, the man whose party looks like it could be the winner of the Dutch parliamentary elections this week. He has called on the Netherlands to deal with the problem of ‘Moroccan scum’, and still maintains a solid lead in the polls. So many of us are left scratching our heads asking ‘why will people still vote for them? Why don’t people still lend their support to the two main parties that still dominate most of the chambers of debate in European parliaments?
The answer is very simple and it is one of their own making. The elites' disregard for the people and their embrace of oligarchy. To show an unwillingness to listen to the people can and has spelled disaster for many parties. In this country however, the Conservative party seem to have learnt from their own hard experiences in Scotland and Wales. At the 1997 general election, the Tories were completely wiped out North of the wall, one of the main reasons being the party’s complete opposition to devolution or even referendums on the matter. Scotland and Wales used to have some of the most Conservative parliamentary seats in the country; in places like Perth and rural Aberdeenshire. Anglesey even voted for Thatcher. But they failed to listen to the calls for devolution and so paid the price.
This is therefore one of the reasons the Conservatives are polling so well at the moment at between 39 per cent and 44 per cent and seem to have stumped the populist right menace that is UKIP. They have shown that they are willing to listen to the people. They listened to the calls for electoral reform and held a referendum. They listened to calls for independence for Scotland and held a referendum, and finally they listened to the calls for a change in our relationship with the EU and held a referendum. The fact that so many of their MPs have put their own personal feelings aside to listen to the will of the people and vote in favour of Article 50 will do the party no disservice. In fact, it will only show that the party is prepared to listen to what the electorate say on issues that they may personally disagree with, unlike the Labour party with the likes of Owen Smith and Lord Mandelson.
The populist right is, however, still on the march in Europe. In France, the two main parties are being supplanted by the Front Nationale, a party which, while having been moderated from its frothing at the mouth nationalism by Marine le Pen, is still pretty distasteful in some of its beliefs. In Germany, the Alternative for Deutschland are now the third most popular party in the polls and continuing to rise, making them the possible kingmakers of any coalition that comes out of this year’s parliamentary elections. In Denmark and Sweden, far right parties are on the rise in what were once thought the havens of liberalism and tolerance. In Hungary you have Jobbik, in Greece you have Golden Dawn, in the Netherlands it is the Party for Freedom, the Freedom Party of Austria, and the list goes on and on.
These groups have to be stopped. They harbour dangerous and unsavoury elements whose views on trade and national identity are wrong and could fundamentally destabilise our continent. But they are the symptom of the political establishment on a national and supra national level, which has refused to listen to the wills of the people. The people of these nations have been consulted in referendums, very few and far between, but these were not nearly enough. The only two countries who got to vote on the introduction of the Euro were Sweden and Denmark (both rejected it). Tony Blair would have taken the UK into it as well, had Gordon Brown not intervened.
On matters of European integration, many of the continent’s people have been denied votes. Or, countries such as Ireland, France and the Netherlands, who had rejected further plans for EU integration, did not have their voices listened to.
Many of our political leaders have failed to realise one important thing about Europeans: many will not give up their voices or national identities without a fight. Because, ultimately, this is what it is all about. The massive influx of migrants from outside the EU and the move towards a single EU super-state at the expense of sovereign nation states has led to anger and fear. These people are understandably trying to protect their national identities which they see as under threat from creeping globalism and the EU’s need to extend its hegemony over its ideal and country of 500 million people called simply, Europe.
People are naturally displeased with not being listened to. The problem is they are turning to the wrong people for their voices to be heard. The main political parties of the West need to desperately wake up and smell the bacon that people are much more tribal than they thought. That their voices need to be heard on a regular basis where the most important national issues are concerned. Populism has seen a gap in the market and has exploited it. If the parties of sense and sound economic policy want to regain their lost electorates, they need to show that they are prepared to listen to their voice, even if they disagree with it, and act on the words of their constituents. If they do not embrace a more direct form of democracy, they will never regain the trust or votes of the many millions they have left behind.
Colm Lock is a final year Ancient History student at The University of Manchester