Economics are important, but it won't do to reach exclusively for economic solutions to the radical right threat.
Dominic Ashton is a political researcher and writer, with a particular interest in issues of extremism
In recent weeks, mainstream parties in Europe have once again been forced to consider the challenge posed by the radical right.
The Front National achieved considerable success in France’s municipal elections, but it was hardly unprecedented. In times of economic crisis and stability the radical right party has proved a consistent threat to the mainstream. Assuming FN voters on this occasion followed previously observed patterns then, as one academic puts it, “perceptions of ethnic threat are by far the most important predictor of FN voting, followed by political distrust”.
Yet Radio 4’s Today programme, mirroring several French newspaper editorials, was content to characterise the result as a “protest vote”, giving precedence to the role of political distrust lest they face the unpalatable conclusion that some voters actually agree with the ethnocentric policies of the radical right.
In fact, the radical right has tended to offer policies that are far more popular than the parties proposing them, as one survey by YouGov helped show in the case of the BNP. Unspecified disenchantment with the establishment is partly responsible for the appeal of radical alternatives, but has never sufficiently explained why this group of discontented voters drift specifically towards the right.
In the UK, the voting base of UKIP has come under scrutiny with significantly improved clarity, as the mainstream press shows unusual enthusiasm for an academic book examining UKIP’s voting base. The authors find that support for the famously Eurosceptic party is not really driven by preoccupation with the EU after all.
Instead, a “combination of anti-establishment politics and reaction to what is perceived as mass immigration and loss of identity” has fuelled their transition into a viable third party of British politics.
UKIP does not share all of the distasteful elements of the Front National, but they do capitalise upon the same sentiment. Since, despite fielding some dubious candidates, they lack the blatant toxicity and outright extremism of other parties who sought to occupy a similar space, the ingredients appear to be present for a successful right-wing insurgency.
On the evidence so far – which is admittedly preliminary in nature as it is derived chiefly from the response of Alexander in the Independent and John Healey in rather evasive form on the Week in Westminster – Labour is content to barely mention immigration when discussing the threat posed by UKIP.
This comes despite the undeniable evidence that concerns over immigration are one of the strongest drivers of UKIP’s support, and the consistent recording of immigration as the second most pressing issue facing the public (occasionally, immigration has escaped its perennial runner-up status and drawn level with the economy in salience).
Where the case for immigration is made, arguments deployed in its favour tend to find comfort in the familiar ground of economics: including myth-busting concerning welfare tourism and highlighting the fundamentally contradictory claims that immigrants both disproportionately claim unemployment benefit and usurp Brits in the job market. Yet it remains unclear how effective this is.
Those attracted to populist parties are agitated by what they consider to be a country they no longer recognise. Some of this can of course by explained by economic changes, but as a critique it continually finds its expression in terms of immigration and its deleterious social effects.
Of course, much of what a potential UKIP supporter may consider a problem with ‘immigration’ is likely referring to settled communities rather than immigrants themselves, meaning their stated concerns bleed into issues of integration, but we can still perceive a sense of cultural, rather than economic, insecurity.
Accompanying this is previous research on anti-immigrant sentiment showing people respond to immigrants differently depending upon their country of origin and, across Europe, cultural concerns predominate over economic ones.
These are uncomfortable facts: they point towards the necessity of addressing arguments that distinguish between ethnic minorities as varying sources of threat and acknowledging that a swathe of British people perceive immigration and changing demographics as a direct challenge to their identity.
The case for immigration and ethnic diversity has to begin to adapt to these patterns. The public do recognise that it is incorrect to say discussion on immigration is out of bounds, but the result is a debate in which the case in its favour is both underrepresented and lopsidedly focused on economics.
This represents one of the greatest challenges facing the left, and one that must be negotiated without catering to existing prejudice, or failing to acknowledge the reality of these anxieties.
Economics are and always will be important, but to reach exclusively for economic solutions to the radical right threat is to posit a comfortable solution to a deeply uncomfortable problem.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.