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Is Britain bucking Europe’s trend to move right? | The far right

Is Britain bucking Europe’s trend to move right? | The far right

Is Britain bucking Europe’s trend to move right? | The far right

Labour’s landslide victory was hailed as a beacon of hope for progressives around the world after a surge in support for far-right parties in Europe, and with Donald Trump currently the slight favourite to become US president in January.

But Britain’s bulwark against the populist and extremist tide sweeping through European capitals may be as much practical as ideological. Nigel Farage’s right-wing Reform party won 14% of the vote nationally, not far from the 16% won by Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in the recent European Parliament elections.

Now the AfD is sending a significant bloc of MEPs to Brussels. Under the UK’s first-past-the-post system, which rewards only the winner in each constituency, more than four million votes in favour of reform produced just five seats in Parliament.

The small reformist group will try to pressure the government and certainly influence the Conservative Party as it reconstitutes its leadership after last week’s crushing defeat, but it wields little real power.

“If the UK had a different electoral system, we would be seeing a similar level of fragmentation to other places in Europe,” said Marta Lorimer, a professor of politics at Cardiff University. “Some trends are simply masked by the way the electoral system works.”

The nature of the British electoral system not only affects the political impact of votes cast for smaller parties (whether the Reform or the Green Party), but probably also deters some potential supporters from backing them in the first place.

In European elections, voters know that even a few lawmakers from a small party can form part of a coalition, giving them more incentive to choose with their hearts than with their heads.

“After 14 years of Conservative rule, if voters were looking for change, they knew they had to choose between left and right,” Lorimer added.

Stefanie Walter, professor of international relations at the University of Zurich, said: “The relative success of smaller parties in UK elections, despite these structural constraints on their attainment of power, is driven by the same political trends that are reshaping Europe.

“Even though there are such strong electoral incentives to vote for both main parties in the UK, the vote is becoming increasingly fragmented and with greater impact.”

According to her, “this reflects a broader fragmentation that we see across Europe, where the political spectrum used to be one-dimensional, with parties aligned to the left and the right. In the last 20 years, a second dimension has opened up, around nationalism and openness in particular, so there is more room for competition, more room for parties with different political profiles.”

However, this does not just benefit populists or the right. The U.K.’s Green Party and the Liberal Democrats made significant gains on Thursday, and proportional representation systems have also recently returned left-wing governments in Europe, although the rise of the far right has been a focus of media attention and political concern. Spain’s Socialists held on to power last year after a snap election gamble in the wake of damaging local polls, and in France a left-Green alliance was projected to form a majority in Emmanuel Macron’s snap election, with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party relegated to third place.

Farage has also largely been a single-issue campaigner, although he has had extraordinary success in pushing through a Brexit referendum, said Professor Amelia Hadfield, founding director of the Centre for Britain and Europe.

He may draw inspiration from the success of populists in Europe and has promised to create a “massive national campaign” for the 2029 election, but his counterparts across the Channel have spent years broadening their appeal, building up experience in government and shaping broader policy platforms.

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Hadfield said: “The question is whether Farage can transfer some of the momentum of Brexit. He now needs to transform what is a leadership- and individual-driven construct. It will be a top-down attempt by Farage to build it in the footsteps of more established populist parties.”

While the election result was neither a clear victory for progressives nor a departure from populist tendencies, the handover of power that followed on Friday morning was an unequivocal triumph for democracy.

Rishi Sunak, the outgoing Conservative prime minister, and Jeremy Hunt, the outgoing chancellor of the exchequer, both acknowledged Labour’s victory and Starmer’s commitment to public service, despite their political differences over how best to serve. Starmer responded in kind.

Rising support for the far right has been accompanied in many places by attacks on the institutions of democracy. The January 6 attack on the US Capitol appears to have done little to undermine Trump’s chances in the November presidential election.

So it is likely that these mutual, perhaps even choreographed, declarations of respect for British democracy and the will of British voters were welcomed in the bipartisan spirit in which they were made.

“A sense of civility has been part of British politics for a long time,” Hadfield said. “We haven’t seen it very clearly in recent years, and the British people have a very good memory and resent the loss of civility.”