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Populism, extremism and the mainstream

18 May 2012
 Populism, extremism and the mainstream

A Policy Network/Barrow Cadbury Trust Project

Identity politics in Europe has moved from race and immigration to culture, Euro-scepticism and nation. The response of mainstream politics – with particular reference to social democratic parties and movements - has been weak, as it has failed to fit the politics of identity within its traditional political framework.
This Policy Network project, generously supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, considers the features of identity politics in the modern European context and how parties – of the left and right – have responded to its different manifestations. It investigates and probes campaigns, policies and political approaches that have successfully prevented identity anxieties becoming extremist political impulses.
The project has been built around three seminars, which will focus in turn on the UK, northern Europe and continental Europe. It will bring together research, case-studies and briefings to investigate the key research questions outlined below. Following the seminars, a final paper will be produced, complete with European case-studies of how the antagonistic and corrosive aspects of identity politics has been resisted and defeated – and where mainstream politics has failed.

Key research questions

The project will explore and suggest exploratory hypotheses based on initial evidence in answer to the following questions:

  • What are the distinguishing features of mainstream, populist and extremist political movements?
  • What are the conditions – political, constitutional, cultural or economic - in which   populism/extremism is able to thrive?
  • How do these different political approaches overlap, connect and where are barriers between them? And how does each political ‘style’ handle different political issues, eg the EU, ethnic and cultural relations, economic and social change or the politics of nation and the functioning of democracy itself?
  • Where are there good examples of campaigns, political strategies and policy responses at a community and national level which have successfully neutralised antagonistic political forces?
  • How have parties been able to accommodate and absorb populist or even extremist symbols and arguments? What are the limits of absorption from both a political and ethical standpoint?

Project leader

Anthony Painter who co-authored the Policy Network paper In the black Labour and Searchlight Educational Trust’s The Fear and Hope Report will lead the project working with the Policy Network team.

Expert briefings
A range of expert briefings have been commissioned to inform the project. They can be accessed here.


The project is kindly supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust


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