Insurgency politics is all the rage

Both in the UK and across Europe the angry reaction to the years of austerity has produced new political forces both on the right and left, insurgency politics in the form of populist movements that threaten the old cosy status quo of established political parties. As such they are disturbing the traditional ways of doing things and threatening to upset the electoral applecart in several countries in 2015.

Nigel Farage, UKIP leader
Nigel Farage, UKIP leader

In Britain, there is the rise of UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) which now has 2 MP’s as a result of defections from the Conservative Party, and it currently is showing around 15% support in the polls. UKIP campaigns on a ticket of leaving the EU and restricting immigration. It topped the poll in the last Euro-elections in 2014, a particularly bad year for the two main parties. It has been performing well in seaside towns on the East coast, and it seems to be tapping into traditional, white, older-aged, working class resentment at being “left behind” by globalisation and technological and social change, as shown for example in the research by Goodwin and Ford (“Revolt on the Right“). While many first thought that UKIP would take votes from the Conservatives, according to Goodwin and Ford they also pose a threat to Labour, although at present seems to be to a lesser extent. UKIP have traded powerfully on being an alternative to traditional political-class politics at Westminster.

Another sign of revolt, from a different standpoint, is the rise of the SNP in Scotland, where it now looks likely that it will take a large number of Glasgow working class seats from Labour, as well as oust the Liberal Democrats from their traditional seats. The SNP too have traded on being opposed to the remoteness and self-interest of Westminster politics. Labour has suffered from being part of the successful Unionist campaign in the 2014 independence referendum and while the nationalists lost they have been capitalising on a reaction both to Labour and to the way Prime Minister Cameron immediately re-focused Westminster attention on the issue of the lack of attention being given to England in devolution debates, “English Votes for English Laws” (EVEL). The SNP would be more likely to defend Scottish interests in the coming re-allocation of state powers with further devolution to Scotland.

The impact of insurgency politics is not just on the matter of the loss of major party seats but also on splitting the vote in many marginals thus, under the UK “First Past the Post” electoral system, giving victory to another party.

Insurgency politics is a revolt against the political elite, partly as a reaction to austerity but most particularly as a perception that traditional politics is corrupt and self-serving. In the UK there have been a major scandal over MP’s over-charging for expenses, thus heightening distrust. Many MP’s are seen as coming from a political elite of Oxford-and-Cambridge educated and affluent Londoners. Currently around 90 MP’s have only worked in politics since university, such as starting out as interns, becoming ministerial advisors and then given some safe seat. In addition London is seen as over-dominant, particularly as it is also the banking centre where the 2008 crisis in part originated. Thus insurgency is strong at the political fringes, such as the coast, in the North or Scotland. The EU is also a scapegoat issue, along with immigration, and a target for right-wing nationalism outside Scotland. The EU is seen as over-bureaucratic, also self serving, remote and acting against the perceived interests of the UK.

Nervous of UKIP inroads into their core vote, the Conservative Party’s traditional euroscepticism has grown stronger, particularly amongst the 100-odd new entrants in 2010 from the right of the party. It is the activities of this often-rebellious group that has severely limited Cameron’s freedom of action in relation to Europe.

In Europe too there are powerful anti-EU forces as the insurgency trend has if anything shown itself to be even more powerful than the UK. Thus Marine Le Pen’s Front National is also eurosceptic and anti-immigrant, and it too threatens to be an effective force in the next French elections in 2017. In Spain Podemos is a new left-wing movement opposed to austerity, as too is Syriza in Greece which has just formed a government along with a small right wing insurgent party to revise the EU bailout. In Germany there is the anti-immigrant movement Pergida, with its opposition to “Islamisation of Europe”, and the Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland, both on the right. In Italy there is the Five Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo.

Such insurgencies can impact an election through not only splitting the votes for their rivals but also getting elected themselves as new parliamentary forces and maybe being able to influence coalition government formation resulting in new policy directions. These conflicts have historically had the potential to paralyse the political process, as happened in Europe in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and led to more extremist governments and disruption and conflict at the international level too.

This can often seem to be the negative results of such upheavals, and yet some new movements can also bring about positive change and successfully re-engage with populations after periods of political stagnation. Thus the rise of Communism was seen as a major threat and yet the arrival of Social Democracy has had arguably a far more profound and long-lasting legacy. Thus the EU could fall apart, but it could also be reformed in ways that enable it too to endure.

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