Europe’s populists will likely enjoy a series of red-letter days this month. The parties that constitute Europe’s resurgent hard-right, from the French Front National (FN) to Britain’s UKIP to the Finnish ‘Finns party’, are set to make major gains in next week’s European parliament elections. Such success would also represent no rabbit out of a hat. In recent years, capitalising upon economic crisis, distrust of political classes and dislike of immigrants, Europe’s populists have enjoyed a series of impressive gains. Geert Wilders’ PVV have become the third largest party in the Dutch parliament. UKIP consistently poll over 20% in Britain. The recent success of the FN in French local elections, rattling the political establishment and prompting the sacking of the French Prime Minister, was the latest notable populist achievement.
The mainstream’s response to these developments has nonetheless been relatively sedate. An Economist analysis of the populists thus arrived at a conclusion shared by many in the political establishment; namely that these parties are miserably organized, likely to disintegrate on attaining any power, and have probably reached a zenith in support. This conclusion is not inconsistent with historical experiences. Similar movements have made similar advances in post-war Europe, yet have collapsed when forced to make the compromises power inevitably involves. The examples of Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party (part of the Austrian Government in the late 1990s) and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s FN (which captured several municipalities in France in the 1990s) are commonly proffered.
There are nonetheless grounds for thinking that this time will be different. Putting aside the fact that the populist vote is attaining levels it has scarcely before, populism’s rise reflects a crucial change in Europe’s socio-economic structure. Namely that the populists are the party of the burgeoning ‘precariat’class. Recent changes to the class structure of developed economies, involving the decline of secure employment and the related disintegration of the working classes, have given rise to a class chiefly characterized by its socio-economic precarity. It is precisely to these voters that the populists appeal. Because they scorn established institutions and attribute blame to scapegoats, such parties appeal to the disenfranchised and resentful. The recent phenomenon of the ‘squeezed middle’ has merely exacerbated things. Pressure on the middle classes, involving extra fiscal burdens and threats to traditional livelihoods, has pushed sections of the middle classes to the precariat’s margins and broadened the populist electoral base.
In the light of such developments the prospects of the populists do not appear as bleak as many foresee. The measures such parties propose, ill-conceived and reactionary as they mainly are, are also ones that are far from intrinsically unviable when in Government. Vladimir Putin thus enjoys continued success through persecution of minorities and nationalist escapades. Within EU borders Hungary’s odious Viktor Orbán wins elections on the back of policies penalising Roma and the unemployed. These countries admittedly have neither long democratic traditions nor western European socio-economic structures, yet the disintegrating social structures one observes in Europe’s west make comparable programmes progressively viable in countries like Britain and France.
Rather than waiting for an implosion of the populist parties that may never come, the best bulwark against these movements is thus action against the deteriorating socio-economic conditions that give rise to them. Precarious jobs should be made steadier, and social policies should guarantee living standards a deal better than many of Europe’s poorest today endure. That this seems to be the last thing on most policymakers’ minds is not only an indictment of our wider political system, but also suggests populism will remain a force longer than many suspect.