Farage against the machine
Mainstream politicians seeking to rival the populism of Nigel Farage's party are on a hiding to nothing
INSURGENT populist parties are now a familiar feature of the European political landscape, yet their rise is so recent and so sharp that it still has the power to shock the mainstream. In by-elections on October 9th the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP), which wants to stop immigration and pull Britain out of the European Union, not only won its first parliamentary seat, which it took from the Conservative Party, but also nearly grabbed one from the Labour Party, which hitherto regarded UKIP as the Tories' problem. Polls since the by-election have put the party anywhere from 13% to 25% of the vote nationally. Next month another by-election offers UKIP the chance to grab another Tory seat.
Neither David Cameron, the Tory prime minister, nor Ed Miliband, Labour's leader, has much sympathy for UKIP's positions. But both are trimming their policies in an effort to emulate the insurgent's success. To placate his party's perennially disaffected right—from which two MPs have so far defected to UKIP—Mr Cameron has promised to renegotiate freedom of movement within the European Union ahead of a referendum on Britain's membership. He is now being urged to say that if he fails in that renegotiation, he would advocate leaving the EU. Mr Miliband, under pressure to produce a rival populist offer as Labour's vote crumbles to UKIP in the party's northern redoubts, has come up with an incoherent promise to crack down on immigrant welfare-claimants.
There are three problems with this approach. First, Britain's EU membership and high level of immigration bring it huge benefits in terms of economic growth, cultural vibrancy and clout. Abandoning either would, in this paper's view, weaken the country in a multitude of ways. Indeed, the two other parties should spend far more time pointing out the contradictions in UKIP's back-of-a-beer-mat economics.
Second, pandering to UKIP will not work, because it misreads the nature of the party's appeal to a core of disgruntled, down-at-heel, poorly skilled voters, in bad jobs or no jobs. Having been most damaged by the downturn, then by austerity, they will be the last to feel the benefits of the recovery. Their main complaint, echoed across the Western world, is against powerful and irreversible economic trends—globalisation and automation—from which they are the losers. Their antipathy towards the EU and immigration is part of a wider deep-seated insecurity that is hard for any politician to assuage. UKIP's solutions would make the disaffected worse, not better, off, as business and jobs migrated elsewhere. Besides, many such voters trust establishment politicians like Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband so little that they would not believe them even if they did promise the same sort of things as Nigel Farage, UKIP's engagingly blokeish leader.
The third problem is that, in trying to placate these irreconcilables, the mainstream parties risk alienating a larger, milder group of voters, who fear the consequences of leaving Europe and dislike their leaders bashing immigrants. The lesson of every election for three decades is that the path to power lies on the centre ground.
That lesson is especially relevant to Mr Cameron, who came to power as a result of his efforts to detoxify the Conservative brand. Pandering further to UKIP might well restore the Tories' old reputation for nastiness. Mr Farage is not going to go away; but the election is still going to be fought mainly over the question of who will manage the economy best.