As Europe turns right, UK voters reject Conservative populism

By Michael Holden and Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) – The centre-left Labour Party’s crushing victory in the British election stands in stark contrast to recent gains by the far right across Europe.

But the party’s triumph was not so much a rejection of populism by voters, but rather an echo of the same disenchantment with their political leaders.

Keir Starmer swept to power on Friday winning a large parliamentary majority and condemning Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party to its worst defeat in history.

The victory comes days after Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) party scored historic gains to win the first round of the parliamentary election in France.

That followed similar advances by populist parties in last month’s European Parliament elections where German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats recorded their worst result ever.

Before his poll triumph, Starmer said progressive politicians had to demonstrate that they had learned the lessons from the rise of nationalism and populism.

“We have to show … in the UK and across Europe and the world that only progressives have the answers to the challenges we face,” he said.

But rather than a bulwark against a European populism wave, Starmer’s success was built on the same voter desire for change and to punish perceived incompetence by incumbent governments that is driving support for the far right.

Britain, once renowned for political stability, has lurched from crisis to crisis since the 2016 vote to leave the European Union, through the COVID-19 pandemic, increasingly stretched public services and a cost of living crisis.

The Conservative Party – in power for 14 years – had increasingly followed a more populist agenda with a focus on immigration, including a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, while facing a challenge from the even more staunchly right-wing, anti-EU, anti-establishment Reform UK party of Nigel Farage.

“I think there are cycles in politics and I think in a way the UK is coming out of a cycle of quite a populist flavoured government since the Brexit vote,” said Peter Ricketts, a former top official in Britain’s foreign office and a former ambassador to France.

“There does seem to be a trend after many of these populist governments come into power there are question marks about their competency in governing, and the cycle turns, and other parties get a chance.”

The Conservative government had increasingly become associated with scandals under former prime minister Boris Johnson and his successor Liz Truss’s disastrous 44-day premiership and her economic plans which brought chaos to financial markets. Sunak tried and failed to reverse that image.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at consultancy Eurasia Group, said there was fatigue with the Conservatives and a desire for stability and coherence.

“The lesson one draws from the UK experience is that it takes a long time for the pendulum to swing back in the other direction and it serves as something of a warning or a cautionary tale to other European countries … that look like they are about to embark on their own populist adventures, notably in France,” he said.

Rahman also noted that Britain’s first-past-the-post system “is a very cruel electoral system for small parties” and the reason why populist parties such as Reform can typically only win a small number of seats.


Across Europe, far-right parties are rising.

Le Pen’s National Rally has moved closer than ever to forming a government in France, while the centrist alliance that Emmanuel Macron formed has seen a collapse in support only two years after he won a second term as president.

The outcome – for France and its EU partners – will depend on Sunday’s run-off vote.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) came second in the European Parliament elections in Germany and party membership is at a record high.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s arch-conservative Brothers of Italy group saw its position strengthened by winning the most votes in those elections, while Dutch anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders saw ministers from his party sworn into government for the first time this week.

Britain’s Conservatives had implemented a series of populist measures, promising to tackle immigration and to reshape the economy, but its credibility was shattered by years of economic stagnation and the failure to stop tens of thousands of asylum seekers arriving in small boats.

“The Tories were populist, but it hasn’t gone very well so people are fleeing,” said Professor Geoffrey Evans from Oxford University.

“I wouldn’t say that is a reaction against populism. I would just say that is a reaction against the perceived incompetence of the party and generally bad economic circumstances that the country finds itself in.”

The strong performance of Reform in the British election, where it won four seats and four million votes, would appear to bear that out.

Not all European countries are shifting to the right.

Ursula von der Leyen is set to remain president of the European Commission after the European Parliament vote, with centrist parties performing well in central and eastern Europe, while last year, Donald Tusk won power in Poland on promises to reverse democratic backsliding.

Rahman said there was a sense that Britain was about to “turn a page”, saying: “A centrist administration with a very large majority, and a more coherent approach to economic policy in Europe will invite foreign investors back to the country.”

Labour’s likely foreign minister David Lammy said: “The truth is when we see the tide of nationalism across Europe and in other parts of the world, he (Starmer) knows if he doesn’t deliver for the working people, then populists and those with a different account of how you deliver will be coming back and will be biting at our heels.”

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)





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