What happens when times change, but parties don’t?
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Leo Varadkar. He positioned himself as Ireland’s champion and even ended up with a decent deal. He expected some kind of electoral dividend in the snap election as he urged voters to stay away from the dangerous fringes occupied by Sinn Fein. Instead, they turned to Sinn Fein in record numbers — ending the two-party system that has governed Irish politics for a century.
In Ireland, this is unprecedented, but it fits a trend for Europe as a whole. Voters have been rebelling against old, established ‘centre-ground’ politics, and all around Europe, established politicians have responded by attacking voters. They’ve called their own electorate extremists, fruitcakes, loons, racists — or worse. Is it any wonder that this tactic has backfired? Voters don’t respond well to being insulted by the politicians they employ. They see it as arrogant and entitled. It drives them further into the arms of upstarts and fringe parties.
In Spain the left-wing populists, Podemos, recently cut a deal with the socialists to back Pedro Sanchéz as Prime Minister. The Law and Justice Party in Poland are frequently attacked as authoritarian, but this didn’t stop them from being re-elected last year with 44 per cent of the vote, more than the next two parties combined. The populist Five Star Movement is still the senior party of government in Italy.
In France, polls now put Marine Le Pen ahead of Emmanuel Macron for the next presidential race. Macron’s own party is beginning to crumble, with MPs jumping ship at a rate that may imperil his majority. There were three defections only last week. His En Marche! is also likely to take a beating in this year’s local elections at the hands of the resurgent Le Pen.
Then there’s Angela Merkel. For years, she has urged voters to reject Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) as far-right extremists. But she’s now struggling to persuade her own party, let alone voters, that AfD is beyond the pale. Last week, local politicians in her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) teamed up with AfD to oust the premier of Thuringia, the German state. Mrs Merkel declared this collaboration ‘unforgivable’. But if she can’t persuade her own party officials to steer clear of the AfD, how can she get the message through to voters?
It’s easy to understand why Merkel was so furious. Thuringia was the first state in Germany where Nazis won government roles in the early 1930s. Any association with the AfD in the region reawakens old political traumas and risks causing political backlash for Merkel’s CDU in national polls. The AfD in Thuringia is led by Björn Höcke, a firebrand nationalist and street-smart political operator — often scorned by the party leadership — who leads a splinter group (‘the Wing’) for AfD radicals.
All this just adds to Merkel’s centrist woes. Her coalition with the Social Democrats barely scraped together a majority of the vote at the last election in 2017: since then, both parties have tanked in the polls. Both parties have internal rebellions. Even the moderates are restless for change.
Merkel is, of course, on her way out. Her anointed successor, Annegret Kramp–Karrenbauer, a standard bearer for old German centrism, also resigned as CDU party leader this week — shocked at events in Thuringia. In doing so, she basically admitted that she cannot win against her party’s more conservative rank-and-file. They are now seizing the opportunity. For them, it is time for the CDU to rival the AfD with a stronger message of national identity, law and order, and restricted immigration.
In my country, the Sweden Democrats are now topping the opinion polls — which is extraordinary when you remember that only a few years ago they were denounced by almost everyone as extremists with roots in the neo-Nazi movement. Now, one in four Swedes support them. Establishment parties have used every tactic to halt the rise of the Sweden Democrats — first silencing and de-platforming them, then debating them in tours around the country. They even tried copy-ing Sweden Democrat policies. Everything failed. Now the opposition parties — a combination of the centre-right and the far left — are working with the Sweden Democrats in parliament to change government policy.
This is no longer a story about the rise of populists, it’s a story of change. Either the old parties must adapt or populists will — transforming into the new ruling norm. Manfred Weber, a German member of the European Parliament, said the drama in Thuringia was merely a ‘sign of growing instability among the parties of the middle all across Europe’. But that isn’t quite right. In some parts of Europe, the middle has reinvented itself — and is holding up pretty well. Last June, the Danish populists lost more than half of their seats in the parliament, partly because the Social Democrats returned to a strong message of social cohesion and restrictions on immigration. Austria’s Sebastian Kurz survived last year’s collapse of his coalition government with the nationalist Freedom Party by campaigning on a clear message on national identity and change. Now he is sharing power with another upstart — the Greens.
And look at Britain: after a year of political agony, it left the EU as the only member not to have any populists in parliament. The lesson, from Dublin to Dusseldorf, is pretty clear: Europe’s old political centre is a dead parrot. It has ceased to be, it is a centre no more. Once, politics was defined by industrial–era identities. All parties practically fought over the balance between economic freedom and collectivism — or between labour and capital, if you prefer Marxist terminology. These conflicts are still there, but they aren’t dominant anymore. There are new questions now about national identity — amplified by turbulent geopolitics and demographic change.
This is not about a debate between woke left-liberals and authoritarian nationalists. That is a decoy, a caricature created (or promoted) by keyboard warriors on Twitter. Such labels don’t mean anything to ordinary voters because most voters don’t recognise these identities.
There is a new centre, and it’s occupied by those who observe that the nationalism on the rise is not about racism so much as social cohesion. The voters dismissed as knuckle-dragging nationalists are often most keen on integration. They don’t want to shun migrants; they want them to be assimilated.
Some conservatives are hardline on abortion rights, gender equality and sex education, but this isn’t the real point. Both Marine Le Pen and the Sweden Democrats have gradually embraced lifestyle liberalism. Then take Alice Weidel, who is the leader of the opposition in Germany’s parliament — for the AfD. She’s also a former Goldman Sachs economist who speaks Mandarin fluently and lives with her lesbian partner, a Sri Lanka–born film producer, and their two adopted boys in the outskirts of a Swiss city.
The new centre is anti-ideological, almost anti-political. A good number of voters are enthused neither by free-market economics nor by ideas of economic collectivism. There is strong support for a fairer distribution of economic rewards — between rich and poor, city and town — but this isn’t about writing a cheque. Voters are increasingly distrustful of politicians trying to fix problems by promising to throw more money at them. They have for decades been served half-truths about fixing education, healthcare, housing, the police, prisons with tax-and-spend measures. There have been improvements, for sure, but they are few and far between. Those who have switched their support from old centrist parties to nationalists haven’t done so because of the merits of their policies.
In America, only a fraction of Donald Trump’s supporters like the man or believe what he is saying. Many of his voters picked him precisely because he doesn’t play by the rules. They wanted someone who calls out the complacent and bureaucratic government culture that simply seeks to present a plausible face but never fixes problems. They want someone who breaks things.
And didn’t Boris win his handsome majority by tapping into the same sentiment in Britain? You have to look long and hard to find someone in Bassetlaw, Redcar or Workington who thinks Boris can improve poor healthcare services and make the buses to run on time — or that a decades-long trend of economic decline can be broken by providing access to high-speed rail. Rightly or wrongly, they voted for Boris because they think his gung-ho personality and unwavering support for Brexit mean he’s prepared to take dramatic measures.
Times change. Arguments change. The old centre is vanishing because too many of the established parties did not want to change — and voters noticed. A new centre ground has opened up, and if Europe’s old parties cannot bring themselves to occupy it, then the new parties will.