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Home Opinion How should social democrats respond to the far right?

How should social democrats respond to the far right?

Tim Bale - 27 October 2010

Evidence from across Europe shows us that there is no panacea to the strategic challenges posed by immigration and integration to centre-left parties

The recent election of the far-right Sweden Democrats to the Swedish Parliament will have come as a huge disappointment to many progressives.  The Swedes, it had been thought, were somehow immune to the siren calls of the populist, immigrant-bashing parties that have established themselves in many other European countries, including its Nordic neighbours, Denmark and Norway.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom on both the centre-left and the centre-right in the UK, it had seemed – at least before September – that the refusal of mainstream Swedish politicians to politicise, indeed even to talk about, migration and multiculturalism had not created a vacuum into which the far right had predictably rushed.  Rather, the maintenance of a cross-party permissive consensus seemed to have succeeded in making such matters a “non-issue”, denying them the salience they enjoyed in other democracies and, in so doing, ensuring that the far-right remained very much on the fringes.

Now that the Sweden Democrats have managed to break through, does this mean the purveyors of the prevailing wisdom were right after all?  Are migration and multiculturalism such big issues that not talking about them is, as many have claimed, counterproductive?  Indeed, shouldn’t social democratic parties actively stress their desire both to control numbers coming in and to ensure that ethnic minorities already present integrate into the majority culture?

When a new political issue emerges or a new political party takes the stage, an old party that might be disadvantaged as a result has, in essence, three options. First, it can stick to its guns, hold on to its principles and try to win the argument. Second, it can seek to lessen the impact of the new issue by talking – and hopefully getting other parties and voters to talk (and think) – about other issues.  Third, it can change its position on the issue.

As far as the challenge from the populist radical right is concerned, this first “hold” strategy is risky: it entails mainstream social democratic parties openly and unashamedly making the case for tolerance of migration and multiculturalism in the face of contemporary, media-fuelled concerns about terrorism, crime, welfare abuse and dependency, as well as the sheer pressure of population on public services and housing. Not surprisingly perhaps, such a strategy has had few if any takers among Europe’s social democratic parties in recent years.

The second, “defuse” strategy –  the one employed in Sweden for so long – entails social democrats trying to pre-empt further leakage of votes by seeking (in cooperation with the mainstream centre right) a broad consensus (opponents might label  it a “conspiracy of silence”) on immigration and integration policy.

This strategy may also involve an effort to play down issues championed by the radical right, keeping socio-economic debate at the core of left–right competition. The obvious problem with the strategy is that political parties, particularly perhaps on the left side of the spectrum, cannot hope to control an agenda that is also driven by mainstream opponents who may be tempted to reject or defect from any consensus, as well as by the media and of course the real-life concerns of voters.

The logic of the third, “adopt” strategy is “if you can’t beat them, join them” – begin arguing that migration must indeed be limited and multiculturalism tempered by an increased emphasis on what some call “integration” but others label “assimilation”; that done, politics can get back to “normal”. The potential problems with this strategy lie in the loss of credibility that may result from charges of a U-turn and in internal dissent. There is also a risk that a party adopting issues that, historically anyway, it has never “owned” will find it difficult to persuade voters that it really does care about (and is capable of delivering on) them.  This is exactly what happened to the British Labour Party when it was in government.

Given no social democratic party in Europe has opted simply to hold its position and fight the good fight for permissive immigration and integration policies, they have, research shows, tried instead to trade off between defusing the issues or taking a harder line. If mainstream conservatives fear losses to the far right and start echoing some of its stances, the “defuse” strategy is no longer an option. On the other hand, social democrats can’t successfully shift right and adopt restrictive stances if internal resistance is too strong or (presuming it exists) if the radical left provides a ready-made home for disappointed liberals. This is exactly what has happened to the Dutch PvdA, which performed so woefully (not least against Geert Wilders’ PVV) in Holland’s general election in June 2010. And it looks like the German SPD may find itself similarly caught between a rock and a hard place.

While it would be comforting, then, if one could make a clear recommendation as to which of the strategies on offer would be the best to follow, there is no magic bullet that will solve the severe challenges posed by immigration and integration to centre-left parties. Sadly, muddling through and messy compromise may well continue to be the order of the day.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Sussex University

Policy Network have launched a new research programme on Immigration and Political Trust

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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