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The long tail. Looking at the rise of populism

July 24th, 2018

A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of populism. All the powers of old Europe has entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: the EU and the House of Lords, Angela Merkel and big business, George Soros and Leo Varadkar.  Or so some political scientists would have you believe.

Let’s take a cool look at the evidence.  When we talk of populists, a lot of different ideas get mixed together: nativism, authoritarianism and outsider status.  This allows those building a thesis of populists on the march to point to phenomena that have no obvious link other than their unexpectedness.  There is not much that connects Five Star Movement and Fidesz, yet both are used as examples of populism.

Let’s be a bit more precise.  For a party to be treated as populist, it must claim to be representing the people’s will against the elite and be willing to use authoritarian means to enforce that.  There is a heavy overlap with nativism but they are not the same thing: neither Fidesz nor the Conservative party are really populist (both lay claim to being natural parties of government) but both in their present incarnation are nativist, with a heavy emphasis on anti-immigration rhetoric and hostility to perceived foreign influences.

The James Dennison tweet at the top of the thread sets out the polling of populist right parties in 15 western European countries.  The picture is decidedly mixed. 

In any case, the emphasis on populism and nativism overlooks the rise of a whole different set of new parties.  Many of these new parties are found in the centre that so often has its last rite pronounced.  In France, Emmanuel Macron and En Marche have come from the invisible centre to take full power.  In Italy, Five Star Movement were the largest party at the recent general election, a confounding mixture of outsider centrism and conspiracy theories.  In Spain, Ciudadanos have emerged as a new liberal voice. 

This uptick in liberalism has not been confined to new parties.  The FDP got a double figure vote share in the German 2017 election.  D66, a Dutch liberal party, was one of the big winners in the Dutch 2017 election.

Meanwhile, outsider parties on the left have also had success.  In Germany, Die Linke and the Greens took one sixth of the votes between them last year.  The Greens also were big gainers in the Netherlands last year.

If there is a theme, it seems to be less one of an inexorable rise of populism and more one of fragmentation, as voters look to explore new options. At the last German and Irish elections, the two main parties took around 50% of the vote where at the turn of the millennium that total had been just shy of 70%. In the Netherlands, the two largest parties at the 2017 election took just over a third of the vote. In the previous election the top two parties had taken over half the vote. No candidate in the French presidential election got a quarter of the vote in the first round.

Why is this happening? In all the countries I have mentioned so far, MPs are elected with some measure of proportionality. This enables new parties to come to the fore relatively easily since support that is scattered geographically can be converted into seats. But that doesn’t explain why votes are fragmenting now.

It is hard to look past the internet for the cause of that. The phenomenon was noted in relation to consumer goods by Chris Anderson in his book The Long Tail. He noted how the internet allowed retailers to stock a far greater range of goods, particularly virtual goods, than was possible in a bricks-and-mortar shop. This allowed those goods which had previously been uneconomic to stock to build a much greater market share.

Similarly, like-minded souls can cluster together on the internet, however niche their interests.  Goat-fanciers, quidditch-players and political bettors can find each other and share ideas and plans. Those who share political views can do the same. So the environmentally conscious, libertarian geeks, change-hating pensioners and metropolitan elitists can each find their respective online niches. If they don’t feel that existing parties are meeting their needs, they can easily set up new ones online. In a system that rewards proportional shares, grass roots presence is not as important as elsewhere.

So far I haven’t mentioned Britain. It’s the exception that proves the rule: at the last election the two main parties both greatly increased their vote share. Britain does not have a proportional electoral system so breaking through is so much harder (though not impossible as the SNP showed in 2015). 

In practice, however, the same forces are apparent just beneath the surface.  Both main party leaders represent just one faction of their party and neither has the political capital to enforce their will effectively.  Labour currently runs the gamut from those who gleefully proclaim that they are communists to those who see themselves as centrist dads, with every flavour of social democrat and socialist in between, with a heavy sprinkling of belligerent Remainers and right-on avocado-eating consumerists.  The Conservatives, consumed in flames as they are by Brexit, include factions seeking to stop Brexit, those seeking to pursue the Mayite deal, those seeking to obtain a deal that leaves Britain still more detached from the EU and those who are currently making preparations to invade Belgium.  All of these groups have their strength replenished Antaeus-like from the public support they now have ready access to.

In these circumstances, party control is tenuous and the ability of the leader to exert authority is still more tenuous.  Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of control over the parliamentary Labour party doesn’t matter much now but a Labour government would be chaotic.  Theresa May’s administration already shows what a fragmented government looks like.  Each faction in each party has leaders who will look strong only until they seek to impose their will on other factions rather than just the leader, at which point the limits of their power would become awkwardly clear.  Jacob Rees-Mogg can snarl, but the chain round his collar wouldn’t let him get many bites in.

Meanwhile, voters in the UK still feel alienated.  As noted in the second tweet, fewer than half of all voters, even after ignoring don’t knows, now feel that a political party represents their views.  There’s a large potential market out there for new political parties.  Perhaps one day Britain, like other European countries, will have a system that allows the public to have a meaningful choice.

Alastair Meeks