Across Britain, embarrassed mainstream politicians have been struggling to explain away the local election successes of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which won 23 per cent of the votes cast last Thursday. Labour leader Ed Miliband insists UKIP’s rise is down to the public’s fears over the economy (so why are they not voting Labour, Ed?). The Liberal Democrats say the UKIP vote is not a vote against Europe, but rather is a protest vote, a sign of the public’s disengagement from the political establishment. The anti-EU Conservative No Turning Back Group, on the other hand, insists that the European question was exactly why UKIP had cut into Tory support, and that the government ought to give ground by calling a referendum on EU membership.
All of these responses have some element of truth. But the unstated assumption is that the UKIP vote is an unwelcome disruption to the British political system, and that normal services should be resumed as soon as possible. Even radical left-wing commentators are worrying that UKIP is a proto-fascist movement that must be quarantined from the mainstream lest it upset the political norm.
The public, on the other hand, seems to prefer a party that challenges the mainstream. UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s eccentric coalition might not bear too much scrutiny close up, but its shaking up of the establishment is a good thing. The question of Europe is indeed symbolic. The aloof and seemingly arbitrary impact of the European Union on people’s lives is a very good symbol of the way elites rule today. The sentiment that people in Britain should run their own affairs might seem xenophobic to some, but actually it has a positive side.
All across Europe, new populist movements and protests have shaken up the establishment. In Italy, comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement won a quarter of the votes cast in the recent general election; in Greece, Alexis Tsipras’ left-wing SYRIZA coalition is polling at 20 per cent; radical right-wingers like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands are also climbing the polls once again. Only last year, George Galloway kicked over yet another apple cart to be elected MP for Bradford in northern England on the RESPECT ticket. In Italy, Spain, Ireland, Greece and Cyprus, various new movements have challenged both the EU and the political establishment over austerity measures.
Researching the growing authority of the European Union at the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, I found that these populist movements against the mainstream political establishment were intimately connected to the European Union’s fortunes. More and more populist movements have impacted upon the mainstream political consensus with growing frequency since the mid-1980s. Their appearance is symptomatic of the breakdown of the left/right political model that pitted Socialists against Christian Democrats across Europe in the postwar era. Whether leftist, nationalist, green, or ‘white’ (the ‘white movement’ paralysed Belgium in the early Nineties), all of these mobilisations took off because of the inability of the old party system to give a voice to people’s hopes or fears.