‘Theresa May and the Conservative Will to Power’, New York Times,12 December 2018.

So Prime Minister Theresa May lives to fight another day. She won Wednesday’s vote of no confidence: 200 members of her party stood by her; 117 did not. Indeed, under the Conservative Party’s rules, it will be another year before her opponents in the party can try to unseat her as leader.

But does her victory really resolve anything? There’s been speculation that the deep divisions and factional fighting between the hard-line Brexiteers and the Conservatives’ less Euroskeptic wing might do more than just unseat the prime minister; it might ultimately break the party apart, with some members coalescing around a nationalist, even populist, alternative while their less strident colleagues join a putative “centrist” party committed to a more moderate, more open style of politics. Aren’t we, then, looking at a truly existential threat to the world’s oldest, and arguably most successful, party?

Probably not. Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future performance, but the Conservative Party’s “will to power” has seen it through many crises in its 200-year history. Holding office, not doctrinal purity, has always been its No. 1 goal. It often bends but it rarely breaks. Even Brexit, however bad things seem, is unlikely to change that.

No one is saying, of course, that “Europe” doesn’t matter. Britain’s relationship with the Continent has long posed a problem for the party, not least because the economic advantages it seems to offer involve a trade-off with national sovereignty, something Conservatives care about deeply. This has been the case since the 1970s, when Edward Heath, the prime minister at the time, had to rely on Labour votes in Parliament in order to bring Britain into the European Economic Community, the European Union’s predecessor.

Most of Mrs. May’s problems since she took office in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum stem from her dogged determination to secure an exit from the European Union that simultaneously restores Britain’s control over migration, but without tanking the economy and necessitating a hard border in Ireland. (Indeed, she’s done little else in her tenure.)

Those problems don’t look likely to go away just because she won Wednesday’s no-confidence vote. The Brexit process remains up in the air, and Mrs. May’s deal with the European Union is still unpopular with many in her party. It’s entirely possible that to break Britain out of the Brexit logjam, she may have to agree to a “softer” Brexit than she would have liked, or perhaps even to a second referendum. Neither of these would be popular among Conservatives — particularly if the latter resulted in a vote to remain. But even then, the party would almost certainly manage to pull itself together rather than fall apart, focusing on what its factions, despite everything, can still agree on.

That’s because even more than the Conservatives care about their divisions over Brexit, they care about what they share in common: a conservative agenda and a determination to keep a left-wing Labour Party from gaining a parliamentary majority.

Believe it or not, most Conservatives are in broad agreement. When it comes to the economy and the role of the state, they are all pretty much Thatcherites now. True, there are a few Conservative members of Parliament who would like to see a little more public spending and investment, a more compassionate attitude to those on welfare, and some slightly tougher regulation of business. But the differences between them and the rest of their colleagues (most of whom want to keep spending, taxes and regulation as low as possible without setting off an overwhelming electoral backlash) are largely differences of degree, not of kind.

That means that there is a post-Brexit agenda that the Conservatives can unite around: free trade with as many countries that will do deals with “global Britain,” cutting red tape that supposedly suffocates small business, overcoming the obstacles that have stymied the growth of homeownership under a party that has long lauded its commitment to a “property-owning democracy,” and health and education provisions lean enough to ensure that tax-funded spending on public services doesn’t crowd out the private sector. Time and time again, after fights that might have broken other parties — the vicious arguments over free trade in the 1920s is perhaps the most apposite example — the Tories have prevented seemingly permanent splits from becoming fatal.

Clearly, it’s proving incredibly hard right now to fulfill the decision to leave the European Union. But because there’s still more that unites the Conservative Party than divides it — particularly when it comes to keeping taxes and regulation low, keeping capital flowing, and keeping a socialist Labour Party out of power — even Brexit, in the end, is unlikely to tear it apart.

And who knows. With the clock ticking louder and louder, and with Mrs. May now apparently safe, this underlying agreement might still combine with the party’s traditional will to power to allow her, after all, to oversee a smooth departure from the European Union next March.

Originally published at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/12/opinion/theresa-may-conservatives-confidence-vote.html


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‘Don’t underestimate Rees-Mogg’s ‘phantom army’ of Brexit fanatics’, Guardian, 21 November 2018

Blackmail,” as countless on-screen villains have observed over the decades, “is such an ugly word.” And, if you want to understand how an ostensibly small group of Tory Euro-fanatics has exercised such a hold over their leaders for so long, it’s probably not the most accurate one. Extortion – getting what you want, not by threatening to reveal something about someone but by threatening to hurt them in some way – is more accurate.

Sometimes that threat is as obvious as it’s effective, namely to deny a Conservative prime minister in possession of a small or non-existent parliamentary majority the votes he or she needs to get something through the House of Commons. Theresa May is hardly first of her ilk to know how that feels.

John Major might have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at the 1992 general election. But his overall majority fell to just 21. That proved nowhere near enough to outweigh the admittedly small minority of backbenchers who’d convinced themselves, first, that Margaret Thatcher had been stabbed in the back by a cabinet cabal of Europhiles in 1990 and, second, that the UK’s ignominious exit from the ERM two years later was proof positive that nothing good could come out of Europe, either for the country or the party.

Other times, the threat is as much extra-parliamentary as it is legislative – namely, the suggestion that, without the support of the Euro-fanatics, a would-be leader won’t make it to the top in the first place. Back in 2016, May clearly felt, as a remainer (albeit a very reluctant one), she had to do everything she could to match the zeal of the leave campaigners she needed to beat. But, again, that was nothing new.

David Cameron may have been Michael Howard’s choice as his successor in 2005 after he’d presided over the party’s third election defeat on the trot, but Cameron wasn’t the starting favourite. And he was well aware that, four years previously, the candidate who should have won hands-down (Ken Clarke) was beaten by a total inadequate (Iain Duncan Smith) solely because one was Eurosceptic and the other wasn’t. So when Liam Fox promised to pull Tory MEPs out of the European People’s party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) group in the European parliament, Cameron (unlike, note, David Davis) positively (but almost certainly unnecessarily) rushed to follow suit.

Once that initial dependence is established, it then becomes impossible, both psychologically and practically, to throw off. May must know this now – but Cameron’s experience could have told her from the get-go. His fear of the party’s Euro-fanatics grew with every passing year, especially once he was forced, after the Lisbon treaty was ratified, to abandon his “cast-iron” pledge to put it to a people’s vote – not a good look, particularly when Ukip could plausibly claim to have denied the Tories a far more convincing win at the 2009 European parliament elections.

In opposition, Cameron’s fearful dependence led to his promising the repatriation of policies and a “referendum lock” on further transfers of power to Brussels. True, along with Nigel Farage giving up the leadership so as to focus on yet another doomed attempt to win a Commons seat, as well as the inexorable logic of our first-past-the-post electoral system, that promise may have helped put Ukip temporarily back in its box at the 2010 general election. But not firmly enough to prevent the myth taking hold among Tory activists, candidates and MPs that Ukip, by winning more votes than the margin of victory obtained by Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs in some constituencies, had denied the Conservatives an outright victory.

In the government, and in the light of more than 20 Tory rebellions against the Lib-Con coalition on Europe (including one in October 2011 in which as many as 81 Conservative MPs voted for a full-blown in-out referendum), that same fearful dependence then led Cameron to veto the EU’s treaty-based response to the eurozone crisis – a move that, after gaining him a hero’s welcome back in the Commons, soon backfired when it became obvious that the other member states could go ahead anyway.

And then, of course, came Cameron’s fateful promise, in his Bloomberg speech in January 2013, to hold a vote on the UK’s EU membership – a move intended, perhaps paradoxically, to face down the party’s Euro-fanatics in the long-term by appeasing them in the short, as well as to supposedly shoot Ukip’s fox. Sadly, and some would say predictably, it failed miserably – just as the attempts of the then home secretary, May, to bang on about immigration failed miserably, too. The rest, as they say, is history.

No one, then, should allow the recent failure of Messrs Rees-Mogg and Baker to muster the famous 48 letters required to trigger a no-confidence vote in May to fool them into thinking that Conservative Euro-fanatics are and always have been merely a phantom army. Sure, maybe once upon a time that was the case, and maybe they’ve never been quite as numerous as they, and their equally obsessive media cheerleaders, have liked to suggest. But, with the Tory press (and indeed ConHome) on their side, with Ukip waiting in the wings, with constituency associations and even their less fanatical parliamentary colleagues growing ever more hostile to the EU, and – most importantly – with the maths as tight as it’s often been, they haven’t really needed to be. And that remains as true right now as it has been in the past.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/21/rees-mogg-phantom-army-brexit-no-confidence-tory-eurosceptics

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‘Corbynism is a populism within Labour – but Brexit risks its internal appeal’ (with Jake Watts), LabourList, 20 November 2018

When we think of populism in recent years, we tend to think of the Ukips of the right and the Syrizas of the left. These political forces are united by their binary politics, in which they look out and see a ‘pure’ people downtrodden or ignored by a ‘corrupt’ political elite. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has never squarely fitted this populist mould. Instead of looking beyond the party, Corbynism’s populism looks inwards within the party itself, with potentially damaging implications for the link between the party’s MPs and their constituents.

The populism of Corbyn and his allies comes not through the way they view the wider world, but of how they conceive of the internal life of Labour. In this vein, the ‘Corbynista’ populist binary has been shaped around the relationship between the party grassroots and the parliamentary party, rather than Labour and the British political landscape at large.

As discussed in our recent research article (subscription required), this has been most obvious during times of crisis, when Corbynism appears to teeter on the brink. Since Corbyn’s election to the leadership in 2015, it has hardly been plain sailing. Internal conflict has been public and frequent, placing significant strain on relations inside the party. In the face of calls to resign, votes of no confidence and a leadership challenge, Corbyn and his closest supporters were keen to stress that party members were being ignored and usurped by the ‘collusive’ elites of the parliamentary party. At some points, this thinking drew on conspiracy theories about Blairite think tanks; the propensity to draw on conspiracy theories is another common feature of populist politics. Together, these elements form a classic populist binary, albeit within the confines of Labour’s own internal politics.

Like many populists, the remedy Corbyn and his supporters proposed to this malady was ‘democracy’. ‘Democratising’ the party, giving Labour members greater power over platform and policy, and a firmer grip of the reins of Labour MPs through reselection, would be key to remedying the apparent injustice they saw in the subjugation of the party faithful. This is the logical resolution to the populist frame: reconnecting the downtrodden with the levers of power.

However, within a party, and in a system that depends upon parliamentary representation, this has potentially harmful consequences for the link between MPs and constituents. Labour’s recent democracy review did not represent the all-out member empowerment that some might have hoped for, and have been led to expect. However, the transformation of the party in this populist image, at any stage, and the fostering of expectations about the need for it, present problems for parliamentary politics. Ultimately, the democracy of Labour is nested within the wider political system. Greater power for party members, at the expense of parliamentary representatives, risks creating a group of dues-payers with greater influence over the PLP than the constituents that MPs exist to represent.

Whether this populist dynamic will be a permanent feature of Labour’s internal politics is difficult to determine. There is little reason to think that the populism of Corbyn and his allies has waned in recent months, and the centrality of populism to the ideology of Corbynism was no doubt reinforced by its effectiveness in beating off parliamentary rebellions.

However, the Labour leadership’s Brexit stance might risk the appeal of this populist reasoning to party members going forward. As Corbyn doubles down on his commitment to a ‘jobs first Brexit’, the distance between the party’s direction on the UK’s relationship with Europe and what members want is widening. At the same time, the gap between the membership and the parliamentary party has narrowed, as the vast majority of both groups have vocalised their opposition to Brexit and Theresa May’s deal.

With these developments, the potential for internal conflict is rising. Should tensions flare up over the question of the UK’s relationship with Europe, the ability of Corbyn and his allies to use their populism to their advantage may well be severely dampened if they are not perceived to be on the side of party members on the biggest political issue of the day.

Originally published at https://labourlist.org/2018/11/corbynism-is-a-populism-within-labour-but-brexit-risks-its-internal-appeal/

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‘Conservative conference: a party surprisingly united on Brexit, just divided from the rest of the world’, The Conversation, 2 October 2018

In his big speech to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on Monday, Brexit secretry Dominic Raab urged fellow Tories to “come together”. I’m not sure he needed to bother. Here in Birmingham the issue’s already one big circle jerk.

After all, the fringes are full to bursting with Brexiteers strutting their stuff in front of adoring audiences who are utterly convinced – as Theresa May still insists she, too, is convinced – that “no-deal is better than a bad deal”.

There are Remainers and Second-Referendumers around, of course. But unless they’re high-profile members of the Resistance, like Anna Soubry or Justine Greening or Philip Lee – who managed to attract quite a crowd at a People’s Vote meeting rather tellingly held outside “the secure zone” – they tend to huddle together for warmth and comfort, hoping against hope that reality might dawn on their colleagues before it’s too late.

So while people often refer to the “conference bubble”, really we’re talking about a whole bunch of bubbles. It’s easier than ever to float around in these sealed spheres thanks to the now-notorious conference apps almost everyone seems to have on their smartphones. Installing them allows those attending to plan their day so rigidly that they never need find themselves in a situation where they and their opinions are in a minority. As a result, those opinions are reinforced rather than challenged, meaning they’ll return home more convinced than ever, not just that they’re right but that pretty much everyone thinks the way they do.

In some ways, of course, that’s the whole point of party conferences. Sure, they’re about showcasing a slew of new (or at least recycled) policies to the public, even if research suggests that the public isn’t paying much attention. Sure, especially when you’re in government, they’re a chance to milk some much-needed cash out of lobbyists and exhibitors. And sure, they’re an opportunity – especially this year – for leadership contenders to try, like Raab, to more or less transparently pitch for the top job in front of those who will ultimately decide who gets it. But essentially these annual get-togethers are rallies for the faithful, designed to make them feel part of something and to gee them up so that they’re more likely to get out on the doorstep for the party at election time.

As to who the faithful are, that’s an interesting question. Some would say that, if you strip out all the (overtired) media people, the (always-on) Conservative Campaign HQ and parliamentary staffers, the “come to our event” think-tankers, the slightly-handsomer-and-more-beautiful lobbyists, and of course the MPs, you’re left with a fair few 50-something men – often small businessmen – in blue suits, a fair few celebrity-spotting ladies of a certain age queuing to see “Boris” or “Jacob” or “Dominic” (first-name terms apparently), and a smattering of mainly male, 20-something, brylcreamed wannabees equally keen on getting a selfie with their heroes. However, as someone who’s conducted extensive academic research on the membership, I couldn’t possibly comment.

What I can say, however, is that anyone walking through the building site that is Central Birmingham at the moment to get to the ICC for an 8am fringe event, could very, very easily tell the difference between the conference-goers and the morning commuters – a sure sign, perhaps, of a party that’s still struggling to look and sound like the 21st-century country it claims to govern.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/conservative-conference-a-party-surprisingly-united-on-brexit-just-divided-from-the-rest-of-the-world-104218

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‘Online or offline? A look at the activism of Labour members’, LabourList, 21 September, 2018

As the last general election showed, when it comes to campaigning, boots on the ground can sometimes beat cash in the bank. Labour’s huge advantage over the Tories in terms of membership must surely have counted for something in close races –  as long, that is, as a decent proportion of those members are actually active. These are the sort of people who will volunteer for phone banks, deliver leaflets, and canvass door-to-door in the run-up to the election, and then remind people to vote and help them get to the polling stations on polling day itself.

Yet if you talk to anyone about the surge of members into the party since 2015, it won’t be long until you come across grumbles (admittedly more frequently from veterans on the right rather than on the left of the party) about people who, having joined, don’t actually do very much – apart, maybe, from sounding off at meetings and flying the flag on Facebook and Twitter.

Whether that’s really the case, we’re not sure. But what we now know more about are the differences between online and offline activism. As part of the ESRC-funded Party Membership Project run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, we’ve conducted detailed surveys of the members of six British parties. What’s interesting, and not just for us but perhaps for the party as well, is that there seem to be some things that enhance one of them more than they do the other.

Stats-fans can find the detailed modelling in this academic article. But the findings are fairly easy to summarise here. Across all six parties (Labour, Tory, Lib Dem, SNP, UKIP and the Greens), you’re more likely to campaign ‘in real life’ – in other words, to do things like canvassing and leafletting – for your party if you were recruited into it locally and feel both positive about, and ideologically close to, your local party. Seeing yourself as a bit more radical than the party as a whole also makes it more likely you’ll campaign for it, as does – more self-evidently, perhaps – living in a competitive constituency.

Some of those things also drive online activism: most obviously seeing yourself as something of a radical and feeling positive about the local party. But you’re more likely to be active online if your route into the party was national rather than local and if you’re a fan of your party’s leader – something that doesn’t seem to significantly encourage offline activism.

This is something that Labour should think about carefully. Understandably, the trend these days is towards recruiting members nationally, often digitally. That makes a lot of sense, especially in terms of cost-saving. But it may be storing up longer-term problems.

True, social media seems to be becoming an increasingly important campaign tool. The fact, then, that Jeremy Corbyn is worshipped by so many Labour members, and that so many of them feel, even now, that they’re located some way to the left of the party, would seem to bode well for its capacity to wage war in this virtual domain.

Yet the party still needs people willing to get out of the house and go leafletting and canvassing. Our research strongly suggests that members’ willingness to do that depends in part on recruiting them, and then making them feel part of something, at a local level.

Anecdotal reports that CLP meetings are becoming increasingly fraught (and sometimes downright bloody) affairs are therefore a cause for concern. Wherever you stand ideologically, if you want to ensure that Labour’s massive membership really does give it that all-important electoral edge in marginal seats, you should be working to ensure that your local party provides a welcoming (and, indeed, safe) space for all those who might want to play their part, regardless of where they’re coming from.

Originally published at https://labourlist.org/2018/09/tim-bale-online-or-offline-a-look-at-the-activism-of-labour-members/

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‘Counting the Cost of Brexit Inaction’, Politico.eu,12 August 2018.

Close your eyes. Imagine for a moment that you’re waking up on June 24, 2016 and turn on the TV to hear that Remain had won the U.K.’s EU referendum. Prime Minister David Cameron is standing at a lectern in front of No. 10, flushed with success but also keen to reassure Brits that he’ll be dedicating the final three or four years of his premiership to reuniting a divided country by tackling “the big issues we all know need addressing.”

OK. Now wake from that dream — or maybe that nightmare. What would those big issues be? Since the vote, Britain’s political debate has been so overtaken by the tortuous practicalities and politics of Brexit, that the notion of government tackling anything else — let alone “big issues” — seems remote.

Everyone’s list will be different, of course, but here, in rough order of said issues’ importance to voters, is mine.

* * *


The National Health Service is under severe strain as the state funding required to keep it free for those who need it fails to keep pace with the growing demands placed upon it. If experience is anything to go by, the default solution (if solution is the right word) is rationing via longer waiting times, narrower coverage and less capital investment.

Unless, that is, someone finally grabs the bull by the horns and goes for hypothecated taxation and/or some kind of mandatory insurance. But even if they do, is social care — the stuff that goes on in homes rather than hospitals — going to be included?

If not, how on earth is it to be paid for, other than, as now, by forcing the unlucky to run down any savings they may have made during their working lives?


Notwithstanding the crucial — and some would argue outsized — role it played in the Brexit “take back control” campaign, quite who is going to be allowed to come to live and work in the U.K., and on what terms, has barely been discussed during the last two years.

That’s presumably because the government, unless it really is happy to “f*ck business,” knows it is going to end up disappointing an awful lot of Leave voters.

Had Brexit not happened, it might have responded more rationally to voters’ concerns by restoring, albeit under a new name, its predecessor’s migration impact fund — and by actually using the rights given to it under EU law with regard to new arrivals from member countries who proved unable or unwilling to find work.

Instead, Brexit has inflamed the debate and made delivering a workable solution to address people’s concerns even more unlikely.


Pre-school provision in the U.K. remains patchy and expensive, making it far harder than it should be to combine work and child-rearing. It’s also one of the few things that can help offset damaging differences in readiness for school between children from different socio-economic backgrounds.

Fast forward to post-16 education, and you discover that the U.K. still hasn’t got its act together on vocational education, that “further education” colleges are still woefully underfunded and that universities are still all over the place — providing too many courses to too many students who, despite the debt they are piling up to pursue them, don’t take their studies seriously enough and can’t, in any case, be guaranteed a “graduate job” at the end of the process.

Government needs to have one eye on the future. Instead, on this as on so much else, it has trained both eyes on Brexit — even as it ignores the repercussions of its pending March 2019 exit, which could make universities less attractive to EU students and trigger a major loss in research funding from the bloc.


The U.K. hasn’t been building enough homes for decades. Its highly restrictive planning regulations aren’t fit for purpose. Home ownership is shrinking, and the young in particular are being priced out of the market, particularly in the more affluent parts of a country plagued by huge regional disparities.

Government attempts to do anything about the situation have so far ranged from the pointlessly anemic to the positively counterproductive.

At a time when it has already hacked off nearly half the country with its pursuit of a hard Brexit, the government has likely realized it can ill-afford to risk offending even more people by doing anything that might devalue their most precious asset.


Last but not least. The U.K.’s local authorities raise relatively little of their own revenue. One of main ways they do it — the so-called council tax — is based on property valuations that, believe it or not, were last carried out in the early 1990s and is nowhere near as progressive as it should or could be.

Nationally, the U.K. has failed utterly to respond to the key challenges of a 21st century characterized by inequality and the ongoing march of digital progress: how to properly tax wealth rather than income and how to make the tech companies pay their fair share.

A number of county councils face acute financial difficulties as a result, while Amazon’s British tax burden has shrunk even as its turnover has increased. A government less consumed by Europe might have had the bandwidth to take at least baby steps to prevent either scenario from happening.

* * *

Admittedly not all the items on this list would have made it onto the U.K.’s political agenda even if voters had killed Brexit stone dead back in June 2016. Nor would Britain have abandoned its obsession with EU membership overnight. But the virtual absence of significant action on any of these pressing issues by a political class mesmerized by how, when and whether to leave the EU represents an opportunity cost that, for once, deserves to be labelled massive.

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‘To Defeat Far-Right Nationalists, Don’t Try to Imitate Them’, New York Times, 16 July 2018.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government in Britain is in turmoil. But the resignations that have rocked it in recent days — even that of Boris Johnson, who was until recently her obsessively ambitious foreign secretary — risk blinding us to a simple truth: The big reason Mrs. May’s party is in so much trouble over Brexit is that it is determined at all costs to end “the free movement of people” that, even for those European countries outside the European Union, is a condition of belonging to the bloc’s single market.

Why are Britain’s Conservatives so set on that course, despite the fact that access to that market is vital to the prosperity of the country they govern? Because promising to “take back control” of their country’s borders gradually became the party’s default response to a challenge that so many of Europe’s center-right parties have been trying to deal with for a decade or more.

The rise of anti-immigrant nationalist insurgencies claiming to represent “the people” against a corrupt and uncaring political establishment has deep economic, political, social and cultural roots. Yet the reaction of the Continent’s mainstream conservative, market-liberal and Christian democratic parties can be boiled down to four fairly shallow, and equally ineffective, approaches. Only if the center-right fully faces up to the fact that they are all dead ends can it begin to come up with better, more creative and probably more combative ways to deal with the challenge it’s facing.

The first approach is to try to ignore the populist radical right — and even treat it as some kind of pariah. That’s essentially what the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and the Moderates in Sweden did for years. In the end, it hasn’t worked.

The far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany took a remarkable 13 percent of the vote in last year’s federal election. The party’s rising popularity has so spooked Chancellor Angela Merkel’s junior partner, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, that its leader, Horst Seehofer, recently came perilously close to resigning in protest of her supposed failure to act on the matter — a resignation that might easily have brought down her government.

Meanwhile, the fact that the Sweden Democrats originated in that country’s white supremacist underground didn’t prevent them from gaining 13 percent in the 2014 general election. Many predict they will do even better this year, even in the wake of attempts by the Swedish government to strengthen border controls.

The second approach taken by the center-right is to toughen its stance on migration and multiculturalism, promising to make life more difficult both for those who want to come to the country and for those who’ve already made it. Countries where the center-right has tried this include the France, the Netherlands, Denmark — and Britain.

Again, though, the results haven’t exactly been impressive: The far-right National Front made it into the runoff in the 2017 French presidential election. The equally extreme Dutch Party for Freedom hasn’t gone away. The Danish People’s Party became Denmark’s second-biggest party when it took 21 percent of the vote in the 2015 general election — at which point it resumed a role it had already played between 2001 and 2011, namely guaranteeing the survival of a minority government led by the center-right.

In Britain, the Conservative Party’s decision to try to outflank from the right the U.K. Independence Party, the populist radical-right party that under Nigel Farage (a big fan of Donald Trump) helped bring about Brexit — delivered it only a pyrrhic victory. True, the U.K.I.P.’s vote share plummeted to just 2 percent in 2017 from 13 percent in 2015. But by alienating better-educated, more liberal voters, Mrs. May ended up losing her parliamentary majority. Since then, she has been forced to rely on the support of Northern Irish evangelicals to stay in power — and now, given the disagreements within her own party, even that might not be enough.

The third approach takes this kind of support arrangement to the next level. Since the turn of the century, center-right parties in Italy and Austria have been periodically involved in full-blown coalition with populist radical-right parties, at least partly in the hope that doing so would expose the latter as blowhards incapable of delivering on their ramped-up rhetoric. The results? Policies on migration and multiculturalism have grown ever tougher without doing much — at least in the long term — to dent the standing of the populists.

Last year saw the Austrian People’s Party, nominally Christian democrats, obliged to invite their radical competitors, the Freedom Party, into government for the second time. And the policy consequences are now becoming clear: The state has been empowered to seize cash and cellphones from asylum seekers and is planning to reduce welfare benefits to migrants who don’t pass language tests and to ban girls under 10 from wearing head scarves. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia finished this year’s general election behind La Liga, whose leader, Matteo Salvini, is now the country’s interior minister and the man responsible for Italy’s recent refusal to allow boats carrying desperate asylum seekers to dock in its ports.

The fourth and last approach is the most radical of all. Rather than trying to isolate, borrow from or govern together with a populist radical-right insurgency, a center-right party actually turns itself into one. This is effectively what has happened in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz has over the past decade transmogrified from an apparently market-friendly mainstream party into an ultranationalist champion of closed borders and “illiberal democracy.”

Has it worked? Well, only up to a point. In Hungary, in spite of Mr. Orbán’s efforts (or who knows, partly because it has shifted the system’s center of gravity so far to the right) Jobbik, which is still very much a far-right party notwithstanding recent attempts to render itself more respectable, nonetheless took 19 percent of the vote in 2018 — down just 1 percent from its best ever showing four years previously. And there has been a pretty high price to pay.

So, trying to beat a radical right-wing populist insurgency by becoming one — or for that matter, by adopting its agenda and even inviting it into government — turns out to be a fool’s errand. Just as important, it also has a huge ethical, as well as economic, cost. As the Bible puts it, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” That’s a question that Europe’s center-right politicians (and maybe their Republican counterparts in the United States, too) seriously need to ask themselves, and soon.


‘To Defeat Far-Right Nationalists, Don’t Try to Imitate Them’ by Tim Bale originally appeared in The New York Times on 16 July 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/16/opinion/to-defeat-far-right-nationalists-dont-try-to-imitate-them.html.


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