The rising spectre of extremism

While most people regarded the June European parliament election results with at best, a form of apathy, one group was rubbing its hands with glee with the outcome – the far right.

In the Netherlands, the anti-Islam Party for Freedom, whose leader Geert Wilders has been barred from entering Britain as a security risk, came a close second and easily defeated the usually dominant Dutch left. In Hungary the Joppik Party, which has its own uniformed militia, won 14 percent of the vote – only a fraction behind the governing Socialists, while in the Britain the openly xenophobic British National Party (BNP) won two seats amid a collapse in support for the Labour Party. Elsewhere in Europe, from Finland to Denmark and from Italy to Austria the story was much the same – far right gains at the expense of the centre left.

It is informative to look at from where within a country the far right actually gets its support. In Britain, their two best areas were Barking and Dewsbury, both deprived inner city areas, both with large immigrant populations and both historically among the British Labour Party’s safest areas. In fact, Labour has gradually drifted away from its traditional policies and support base since 1989 in a bid for middle class suburbia to be able to compete with the Conservatives. Essentially they had recognised that, with the death of communism and the rise of the Middle Class Labour’s traditional coalition of working-class inner cities, university professors were incapable of actually winning elections and they needed to broaden their appeal.

While it is hard to have a problem with a political party trying to implement its policies by winning elections, Labour’s move to the centre under Tony Blair has had one effect that the party did not intend: the alienation of the working class. With Labour’s  transformation into New Labour, the party became one of the middle class, just like the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and while at first the party dragged its usual base with it kicking and screaming, this situation couldn’t last. This void seems to have birthed the current crop of intolerant extremists.

The problem could actually be seen as far back as 1997, at the election where Labour swept everything before it. Labour’s triumph could be seen in the fact that it won more middle class votes than working class ones for the first time in history, but this masked future problems. Not only did the party’s vote not rise as much in West Ham as, say, Oxford, the only two constituencies where Labour lost support were both in inner city London (although they still did well, and the BNP did not surface in either area for whatever reason). Nonetheless, it was the start of what would become a pattern of weaker Labour support in core areas as extreme groups of both the right and left rise, with the left at least achieving a parliamentary breakthrough with George Galloway’s RESPECT coalition being victorious in Bethnal Green in 2005.

The extremists on the right seem to have had a harder time than their left wing counterparts. Most of this seems to be down to self-inflicted damage, for instance the conviction of BNP leader Nick Griffin for incitement to racial hatred in 1998. However, the BNP at least seems to have learned from its mistakes and now appears to be making a distinct to brand themselves better, realising that they might seem more reasonable if they stopped brandishing swastikas. They are not flaunting what turns people off the party, which makes them a much harder target for attack.

This is not to say that the BNP haven’t made these advances in Europe without doing something besides better marketing. They have tapped into genuine concerns that, whether right or wrong, are not being addressed by any of the three main political parties. The top of this list is immigration, with which Labour is, from an electoral if not ideological point of view, deeply conflicted. If it takes a harsh line, it alienates immigrants, a core Labour constituency – but if it doesn’t, it alienates the 72 percent of Britons who see immigrants negatively. This is not to say that nearly three quarters of the British population is about to vote BNP, but it does say that there is certainly a niche for them in British politics. This niche will continue to exist if the mainstream parties keep shying away from this and other controversial topics, even if it is just to outline their reasons as to their support for immigration.

In Ireland we have been strangely fortunate in this regard. The deeply entrenched loyalties people have for the Civil War parties, as well as the tendancy for those parties to lean to the right means that we have been insulated from this to an extent. The fact that there are only four constituencies in the whole country with large numbers of poor city dwellers – Dublin Central, Dublin North West, Dublin South Central and Dublin South West – means that the far-right can only expand very slightly. They are also hampered by the monopoly that Sinn Fein and charismatic far-left politicians like Joe Higgins MEP and Cllr. Richard Boyd Barrett have among their target voters.

However, the fear among the chattering classes is that this may nonetheless be enough, and in a hung Dail, even a small far right could wield a great deal of influence in propping up a government. This, while possible, is quite improbable for one simple reason: Ireland has no far right party with even the slightest chance of getting into the Dail. The closest we have – The Immigration Control Platform, won a grand total of 1,329 votes between all its candidates in the 2007 general election, being beaten by, among others, Christian Solidarity, Republican Sinn Fein, the Socialist Workers Party and The Workers Unemployed Action Group. This is hardly an inspiring litany and hardly one that any self-respecting, growing party would want to be a part of.

So what does this tell us? It tells us that the growth of right wing extremism is dependent on a viable group to channel these various sentiments into the political process. Even then in order to become effective, the group will have to relax their image to get significant support to some extent, making them less extreme and more like any other party, which slightly ruins the point of a radical protest party, wouldn’t you say?