Third-way reforms have certainly provided support for right-wing parties as social democrat parties have alienated their core constituencies with tight welfare reforms. Right-wing parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Front National of France, and Sweden Democrats have been able able to capitalise on this, as well as the lack of left-wing competition, by appealing to the social democratic core constituency on matters of socio-cultural importance, namely immigration. However, this essay also critiques Christoph Arndt by arguing that immigration does indeed have merit as a standalone issue. Alongside the UK, it examines the cases of France and Sweden, which did not experience significant third-way reforms, and shows that right-wing parties have prospered there as well as in the UK where third-way reforms were implemented. Therefore, this essay concludes that immigration has merit as a key standalone issue in contemporary European politics but it is also an issue that has been exacerbated and intensified by third-way reforms.
It may seem counter-intuitive for people who would previously have considered themselves to be a core part of the social democratic party to now be supporting a right-wing party. However, whilst there may not be a strong connection on economic policies, in fact it might be classed as a chasm, there can often be a strong connection on socio-cultural issues. Such issues can include the environment, law and order, but most commonly in the modern age they centre on immigration and its relationship with welfare reform. Copsey and Haughton have described how immigration in relation to Britain’s relationship with the European Union (EU) has been subjected to “issue capture” by UKIP. This is when ‘a minority group takes near-total control of the terms of domestic political debate, to the near-exclusion of other voices’ (Copsey and Haughton, 2014: 86). Thus, whilst Eurosceptic views are the minority, they seem to determine the terms of the debate on the UK’s relationship with Europe. If Lipset’s thesis on working class authoritarianism is added, we can see that support for UKIP will grow based upon the fact that people may be leftist on economic issues but rightist on socio-cultural issues (Lipset, 1981). Right-wing parties such as UKIP often appeal to former social democratic voters because this constituency considers itself to be among the “losers of globalisation”, with globalisation, and with it immigration, held as contributing to the Third-Way reforms (Kriesi, Grande, Lachat, Dolezal, Bornschier, and Frey, 2008). If there is not a strong and valid leftist party that will reform the welfare system back, as is the case in Britain and Denmark, this constituency is left to find solace in a right-wing party that can help them but through the means of punishing immigrants rather than reforming the welfare state. Therefore, the blame for the situation is put on immigrants as much as on the social democrat party who implemented the reforms. In this sense, immigration acts as a way of channelling anger over welfare reforms.
Yet, this may be to ignore the importance of immigration as a stand-alone issue. Christoph Arndt, for instance, argues that immigration can only become an issue in politics once the welfare link between the social democrats and its core constituency is broken. Arndt argues that ‘the Danish People’s Party could only mobilise strongly on the immigration issue if social democratic core voters were alienated by the SD-led government’s welfare policy’ (Arndt, 2013: 148). However, if one examines the case of France we can find that this might not be strictly true. France stayed largely immune to third-way reforms with its social security system nearly tripling in size over the past sixty years. In fact, its public spending of 32% of GDP is the highest within the OECD group of more economically developed countries (European Parliament, 2013; The Economist, 2013). Whilst other countries were implementing neo-liberal reforms, France lowered the retirement age from 65 to 62 – it was at one stage 60 – and introduced a universal top-up health coverage for the poor. The government relied instead upon tax increases rather than welfare cuts for its fiscal austerity. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that this will change significantly in the short-term given that President Hollande’s electoral support is significantly based within the public sector. One would thus assume that support for the mainstream parties would be strong and that more radical parties would be relatively unimportant. However, if one studies the data of French Presidential elections it is obvious that the right-wing party, Front National, which is arguably further right than UKIP, has been a strong force in French politics since the 1980s. In the five presidential elections since 1988, the party has had a consistent vote share of around 15% in each election (Election Resources, 2012). In fact, the party made it to the second round run-off in 2002. This is in comparison to UKIPs average of about 2% before 2015. Furthermore, Arndt argues that Sweden also remained immune to large third-way welfare changes. Yet, at the same time the right-wing Sweden Democrats increased their vote substantially from a vote share of 2.93% in 2006 to 12.8% in 2014 (Election Resources, 2014). If Arndt is correct that there was little to no reform then this would beg the question as to why the right-wing party has started to do so well. One would argue that it highlights the importance of the immigration issue and the “issue capture” of it by the Sweden Democrats. Furthermore, UKIP didn’t start becoming a considerable force in UK politics until the 2010s, long after reforms were implemented, when its vote share increased from 3.1% in 2010 to 12.6% in 2015 (Election Resources, 2015). Therefore, the point is that immigration can be considered a stand-alone issue, albeit one that is exacerbated and intensified by third-way reforms and economic difficulties, as can be seen in the UK.
One may question why the British Conservative Party was able to win the 2015 election with an increased majority despite its various cuts to welfare that include cuts to the National Health Service (NHS), which is an institution politicians usually dare not touch due to its political implications. One explanation might come from Alesina, Carloni, and Lecce (2011:2) who argue that ‘fiscally loose government[s] tend to loose election[s] more often than average’. This implies that people would rather the government be fiscally responsible than be individually financially secure, which seems odd and mistaken given the considerable protests against welfare cuts and notably junior doctors taking strike action for the first time in forty years. When one examines the electoral data more closely we see that in fact Labour gained a greater swing of the vote with +1.5% compared to the Conservative’s +0.8%. This pales in comparison to UKIP’s +9.5% and even the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) +3.1% (Election Resources 2015). Therefore, what the election highlights is not the support for the government’s fiscal austerity but instead the unproportional electoral system which led to Labour losing seats and Conservatives making gains despite a greater swing of the vote to the former. In addition, we see UKIP actually losing one of its two seats as it ended up coming second in multiple constituencies, whilst the SNP gained 50 seats despite having half the number of votes. Many of Labour’s lost seats were in former strongholds in which its vote became split between itself and UKIP, thus allowing the Conservatives to win. Therefore, the 2015 election highlights how former core constituents of the Labour Party seem to have gravitated towards the right, based on issues of a socio-cultural nature. In Scotland, this constituency has been lured by Scottish natonalism.
The right-wing may also have been helped by a general lack of trust in politicians. If former social democrat voters feel that they can’t trust their former party after third-way reforms, combined with incidents such as the 2009 “MP’s Expenses Scandal” then more radical parties may be able to capitalise. Politicians are considered the least trustworthy profession in the UK, with trust falling to an all time low of 13% in 2009, although one could argue that this has never been particularly high (Ipsos-Mori, 2015). Arndt describes the need for parties wishing to take advantage of social democrat losses to have ‘clean hands in social policy’ such as the German Left Party and unlike the Danish SF party (Arndt, 2013: 124). One only has to look at the demise of the Liberal Democrat Party in 2015, with its relation to university tuition fees amongst other things, to understand the rationale behind this logic. Whilst, parties such as UKIP, Sweden Democrats and Front National will all have the tag of “untrustworthy politicians” they can still benefit as the only ones not tainted by government involvement or accusations of “just all being the same”. This would explain their appeal to former core constituents of social democrat parties who are “floating” and looking for a new party to support. The issue of trust may be a hindrance if the Labour Party under the more left-wing Jeremy Corbyn decided to go back to a pro-welfare manifesto. Under Arndt’s logic, the party would be tainted by its third-way past, not to mention its lack of fiscal responsibility if one is to consider Alesina’s argument. Therefore, UKIP may well be able to consolidate its recent dramatic rise in support.
In conclusion, third-way reforms have certainly provided support for far right-wing parties. How far along the political spectrum these parties are varies but they are certainly more right-wing than their mainstream centre-right rivals. Social democrat parties alienated their core constituencies with policies that hurt these voters economically, in some cases severely. Right-wing parties such as UKIP, Front National, and Sweden Democrats were able to capitalise on this, as well as on a lack of left-wing competition, by appealing to the social democratic core constituency on matters of socio-cultural importance, namely immigration. These parties were able to blame the economic hardships that this constituency was going through on immigration and other issues, with anti-immigration policies viewed as a way in which the core constituency could recover their lost economic position. Ironically, Labour leader Gordon Brown’s famous phrase “British jobs for British workers” seems apparent here. Of course, it should be noted that right-wing parties have also used immigration to take voters from the centre-right parties. Interestingly, it seems that whilst the differing electoral systems have led to vastly different levels of presence in parliament, all three parties still have had a large impact on the political system. UKIP, for instance, may only have one MP but its role in deciding the outcome of the 2015 election was crucial. However, this essay also critiques Christoph Arndt by arguing that immigration has merit as a standalone issue. In France and Sweden, which didn’t see significant third-way reforms, the right-wing parties experienced strong success. Front National has been the main alternative party in France since 1988 with consistently high support, whilst Sweden Democrats has gained 49 seats in the past five years. Therefore, these case studies suggest that even if welfare policies were brought back or even if the current global economic crisis eased, we would still see the prominence of the immigration issue, particularly in light of the swathes of Middle Eastern refugees entering Europe and further expansion of the EU. Thus, the right-wing parties aforementioned would arguably still retain a strong position in political debates.
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