Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 16 January 2024

Why the centre-right has helped cause the drift to the far right in Western democracies

The far right now holds power in Hungary, Italy and Argentina. Trump, undoubtedly a far right figure, has a good chance of not only becoming the Republican’s presidential candidate but also beating Joe Biden. Nigel Farage was welcomed at this year’s Conservative party conference. Tim Bale notes similar trends in other European countries. The tide is not uniform, as defeat in Poland shows, but it does seem as if the far right is both gaining ground and becoming more respectable in many Western democracies.

A key question is how much this drift has been caused by or facilitated by the actions of centre-right political parties. This could involve the actions of centre-right parties encouraging support for parties further to the right, or it could involve the dominant centre-right party itself moving further right. In this post I want to draw on some of my earlier discussions to answer why this might be happening.

A prior question is what we mean by moving further right, or far right political parties. It is, as ever, helpful to distinguish between economic policies on the one hand, and social policies on the other. What most seem to focus on when worrying about the far right is the latter, and particularly a trend towards more authoritarian policies that reduce democratic freedoms and which scapegoat and harm minorities like immigrants or welfare claimants. The argument I will put forward in this post is that, for some countries like the UK at least, it is the right wing nature of economic policies pursued by centre-right parties that lead them to adopt or encourage more right wing or authoritarian social policies, which in turn encourages the far right both outside and within these parties..

The first point to make, which I explored in this post, is that it is quite possible for centrist parties to attempt to ostracise rather than encourage or adopt policies from parties less near the centre. Famously Edward Heath fired Enoch Powell after his ‘rivers of blood’ speech. On the left Starmer has excluded many left wing candidates, including the previous leader Jeremy Corbyn, from standing as MPs. In a predominantly two party system, excluding rather than embracing policies further from the centre makes perfect sense in a simple model where the two main parties try to capture the support of the median voter, and where there is little risk of many more right or left wing supporters voting elsewhere or not voting.

But what if the centre right party is committed, for ideological or other reasons, to economic policies that are quite far from the centre ground? To get elected, it needs to do two things. First, it needs to focus its campaigning away from these unpopular right wing economic policies. This is possible if the centre-right party has substantial support in the media, which it often does. Second, it needs to focus on more social issues, and try to attract socially conservative voters who may also have relatively left wing economic views. This inevitably moves it away from the centre on these social issues, unless it can successfully paint parties to the left as very liberal. I will call this the ‘culture war’ mechanism.

Focusing the policy debate on social issues, like immigration or nationalism, in itself allows political parties with more authoritarian policies the space to attract support. It also makes it more difficult for the centre right party to ostracise more extreme views. For example, if the centre right party is focusing on the dangers of immigration, it is difficult to suggest a party that believes immigration should be curtailed further is somehow beyond the pale.

This problem, of parties further to the right attracting the support of voters, members or even MPs, becomes even more acute if, while in office, the centre right party fails to implement policies that satisfy socially conservative voters. The example of the 2010 Coalition government in the UK’s immigration targets is an obvious example. As I argued here, there are strong economic reasons why a centre right party would not want to strongly curtail immigration, but if it campaigned on the basis that it will it leaves itself open to challenge from a party further to the right.

In large part, political parties that campaign to strongly and quickly reduce immigration are involved in deceit, unless they are explicit about the economic costs. I argue this here, but Nesrine Malik probably puts it better when she writes “apparently vexingly high [immigration] numbers are, to a large extent, the outcome of economic and political decisions that mean we invite immigrants to fill labour gaps that policymakers either did not anticipate, or ignored warnings about.” In the UK this also involves filling gaps that the centre right party deliberately created in the public sector by reducing the relative pay of medical, social care or teaching staff.

There is a second mechanism by which a centre right party that is committed to strongly right wing economic policies may encourage the far right. Part of having a strong right wing economic policy typically involves wanting a smaller state. In this post I looked at the strong evidence that austerity in the 2010s played an important role in increasing support for the far right. The key point I made is that this link is not just (or even mainly) because voters are reacting to being poorer, but because when cuts occur or real wages fall socially conservative voters tend to focus on ‘outsiders’ who they either feel are responsible for these bad times or who they feel do not deserve their meagre share of a shrinking pie. In this second political dynamic, the ‘austerity mechanism’, it is the right wing economic policies that directly encourage support for socially conservative policies.

With both the ‘culture war’ and ‘austerity’ mechanisms we have the adoption of right wing economic policies (e.g. neoliberalism) by the centre right leading to increasing support for far right political parties, and/or a further drift to the right (in the social/authoritarian dimension) within the centre right party itself. In both cases neoliberalism creates a drift to the far right and, because the centre right party itself moves, encourages the media to make these more far right views respectable.

To the extent that the far right (or the more right wing centre right) party is about encouraging internal divisions within society (us and them), it is likely to become populist, where its leaders represent ‘the will of the people’ (us) against the elite, their supporters and outsiders (them). This in turn can provide the platform for policy that severely curtails human rights (the rights of ‘them’ of course), and actions that bias democracy in favour of the right wing party. Such actions can range from requiring photo ID at polling booths to mounting insurrections when an election is lost.

The relative importance of these two mechanisms will obviously vary from country to country, and my focus on these two mechanisms obviously reflects the national experiences I know most about. It leads me to be able to say, in the UK and US at least, that the centre-right has played a large part in the way politics has drifted further to the right over the last decade or so. In other countries the role of the centre-right in facilitating more right wing figures taking power can be much more direct, as Tony Wood describes in Argentina here.

Both the dynamic processes I have highlighted have been pursued by centre-right parties for ideological or electoral gain, but whether those gains will be sustained or indeed reversed over time remains an open question. This is because the strategy either creates a big threat to the centre-right party from further right, or it shifts the party further right than many of its politicians wish. Both could make the centre-right party less likely to win elections in the longer term, because it opens up space for an opportunist centre-left party, particularly if that party is prepared to suppress its natural social liberalism.

Will this lead to a re-evaluation of strategy within centre-right parties? From what I know there is no sign of centre-right parties moving to the left (and therefore towards the centre) on economic or social issues as yet. I suggest here that the forces keeping them where they currently are or moving further right are too strong, and these forces in the UK include the influence of the media, the membership and those providing political donations. (Andrey Tomashevskiy finds that parties which receive a greater percentage of their income from private donors tend to adopt more extreme positions on socio-cultural issues.)

If this analysis is correct, then the global political landscape for some time to come will involve both opportunities and distinct dangers. The opportunity is that centre left parties who are prepared to appeal to the centre ground will find it easier to win elections, as centre-right voters are put off by the drift to the right of centre-right parties. The danger is that a far right party (or a previously centre-right party that has moved to the right) will come to power and curtail democratic freedoms.

Unfortunately, as I have noted before, there is no way the opportunity and danger offset each other. Even if centre-left governments became more common as a result, democracy inevitably leads to changes of power. As we are seeing in the United States, even quite obvious threats to democracy can be insufficient in dissuading enough of the electorate from voting a far right party or leader into office. If a far right party comes to power and starts distorting democracy to entrench its own position this may become very difficult to reverse.

Postscript 18/01/24

On evidence that centre-right parties adopting socially conservative, anti-immigration policies helps rather than hinders the far right, see here 

For discussion of the success of the far right in the Netherlands, which is consistent with the 'culture war' mechanism described above, see here. (HT Anand Menon)

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