In post-Brexit Britain, a particular question comes to mind: why is it that so many former Labour strongholds have made a drastic turn to the right, voting to leave the EU and whole-heartedly accepting the rhetoric of figures such as Nigel Farage? How is it that the same people who protested against Margaret Thatcher thirty years ago have ended up voting for people who would once have supported her policies? Indeed, a large bulk of the Brexit vote was won in the north and the Midlands, in places like Sheffield or Birmingham which have been for long in Labour hands.
Moreover, if one steps back from the British context of the question, one realises that this is a trend which is not unique to our island but rather widespread across the European continent. In places such as France, Italy and Austria, figures like the National Front’s Marine Le Pen or Northern League’s Matteo Salvini are reaping in hordes of disgruntled ex-leftist voters. Even the supposedly “social-democratic paradise” that is Scandinavia is seeing a rise in various nationalist or far-right movements; in Sweden the Swedish Democrats have gained 10% in national elections since 2006.
Many answers to this question have tended to emphasise the socio-economic nature behind why so many voters, be they from the left or the right, have tended to vote authoritarian-right in times of crisis, daunted by the fears of mass immigration and a collapsing national structure. Historians will similarly draw parallels to post-World War I Germany or Italy, where economic crises allowed figures such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to make massive gains and ultimately seize power.
In places such as France, Italy and Austria, figures like the National Front’s Marine Le Pen or Northern League’s Matteo Salvini are reaping in hordes of disgruntled ex-leftist voters.
Nonetheless, one explanation that has been under-appreciated is one which looks at the way in which “left” and “right” are defined, and how self-identifying left- or right-wing parties fall into these categories. The truth is that, aside from “left” and “right” being somewhat ill-defined terms, there has been a shift in the policies of both left- and right-wing parties on the political spectrum, with the far-right incorporating left-wing economic views and the centre-left embracing certain right-wing, neoliberal positions.
Far-right political parties have been given the label of “Third Position”, blending authoritarian right-wing social views with centrist or even leftist economic stances. The first far-right movements before the war tended to advocate a blend of private business with government interventionism and nationalisation, thus occupying a syncretic and broadly centrist economic position. At the end of World War II, with the far-right almost dead, some of its movements began to flirt with capitalist neoliberal policies, opposing the social-democratic establishment in 1970s European politics. Nonetheless, by the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the bulk of the far-right had returned to its earlier roots in response to the victory of Miltonian economics in the Western world and its resulting repercussions for workers and the unions.
A clear example of this can be seen in France’s National Front, which at a point had been seen as ‘Reaganite before Reagan,’ yet which now supports certain welfarist policies. What they did and continue to do is maintain their extreme right-wing views on social inequality, as well as their authoritarian views on state matters such as law enforcement and the military, while replacing free market capitalism with protectionist, philo-Keynesian, mixed-market economics. This can be seen as a move to attract disenfranchised Old Labour voters towards an economically similar albeit socially right-wing ideology. Indeed, most new far-right parties have shockingly similar slogans to the old left, attacking “evil” big businesses, “greedy” bankers and the “corrupt” capitalist system. The only difference is that the new far-right’s solution to unrestrained capitalism is that of harder state power and the propagation of ethnic inequality; by comparison, the old left which seeks to resolve this problem with even more social egalitarianism.
Indeed, most new far-right parties have shockingly similar slogans to the old left, attacking “evil” big businesses, “greedy” bankers and the “corrupt” capitalist system.
The opposite trend can be seen in the centre-left. Ever since the dawn of Tony Blair and “New Labour” at the start of the millennium, the mainstream European social-democratic movement has endorsed free-market capitalism, part of the Western neoliberal trend following the legacy of Margaret Thatcher (and her American pal Ronald Reagan). This new ideology has taken on the name of the “Third Way,” retaining the left’s socially progressive views on immigration, gay rights and human equality, but abandoning economic socialism in favour of neoliberalism. Certain “Old Left” politicians have remained true to their colours, from Jeremy Corbyn to Alexis Tsipras, but they remain relatively unpopular amongst much of the Third Way and New Labour political elite. Indeed, many have formed their own independent parties away from the centre-left, like the Labour offshoot Respect.
As a result of this, the political stage has radically changed: amongst many working people, the centre-left is no longer seen as the “friend of the people” but the “friend of the bankers,” while they see the far-right taking over as their true “ally.”
Having come to this conclusion, we may now look to the current social situation. With the rise of Islamic extremism and greater immigration, the far-right stirs rising support from working people by arguing that these phenomena are threats to their existence. “Immigrants steal your jobs!” or “immigrants threaten your culture!” are amongst the typical statements offered repeatedly by the various Le Pens and Salvinis. As such, the far-right has found it easy to console the dichotomy between its fascist ideology and its formerly egalitarian leftist electorate by mobilising them to hard-right social views. By now, many of these ex-Labour voters are completely removed from the social positions of their former leftist peers, embracing fascism and viewing even strict socialists like Corbyn as “weak” and “hippies.”
The far-right has found it easy to console the dichotomy between its fascist ideology and its formerly egalitarian leftist electorate by mobilising them to hard-right social views.
To render things more complicated, there are now populist parties that completely straddle the definition of right or left and blend a variety of views into an uncomfortable mêlée of fascism, socialism and liberalism. This could perhaps be referred to as a “Fourth Way.” Its perfect example would be the Movimento 5 Stelle and its leader – Beppe Grillo – who appeal to the working man by employing anti-immigration arguments common to the far-right, supporting leftist arguments on de-growth, and then shifting to environmentalist and e-democratic positions typical of Greens or social liberals.
Ultimately, the traditional placements of parties on the political spectrum is largely defunct. It is now necessary to conceive a new vision of politics to understand how things work in the modern world – a necessity made apparent by Brexit, but of which Brexit is merely the tip of the iceberg.