Other ‘polite alternatives’ to the BNP

On June 1 2011, we contributed a post about the extent to which the British National Party, UK Independence Party and the Conservatives were ‘fishing in the same pond’ of voters for their electoral support.

We did so on the basis of a 2009 survey, in which respondents were not only asked which party they would vote for in a general election, but also how likely it was that they would support any of the other parties. Our conclusions were that the majority of the potential voters of the BNP are also potential UKIP voters. In addition, slightly over half of potential BNP voters were also potential Conservative voters. The segment of the BNP support that does not overlap with either UKIP or Conservatives was relatively small, being less than 20 percent of the party’s total electoral potential.

Some readers asked us to show the overlap in the potential support of the BNP and left wing parties. The figure above provides this information, and has been constructed in the same fashion as the figure in our earlier blog post; and it allows us to draw a number of conclusions.

First, slightly over 40 percent of potential BNP voters are also potential supporters of the Greens. Overlap with Labour is smaller, amounting to less than a quarter of BNP electoral potential. However, both these overlaps are considerably smaller than those with the Tories and UKIP. In other words, and perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of potential BNP voters do not consider left wing parties as a relevant electoral choice: a clear majority looks at UKIP and Conservatives as an attractive alternative.

Second, the potential pool of voters shared by Labour and Greens is large. This suggests that under a different electoral system – one that does not force people to vote tactically – the Greens’ share of votes cast might be significantly higher.

This overlap between potential voters for the BNP and parties generally considered to be on the left suggests two further points. The first is that the ideological orientations of voters cannot directly be deduced from the ideological character of the party they vote for. Put differently, not all BNP supporters are Fascists, not all Labour supporters are socialists, and so on. The second is that overlap of support between Greens and BNP, two seemingly incompatible parties, is likely to contain a number of voters who are disenchanted with the mainstream parties, and for whom, therefore, any alternative carries some appeal. From our current data, unfortunately, we cannot ascertain how large this segment is.

Cees van der Eijk and Eliyahu V. Sapir

Cameron versus Clausewitz

David Cameron responded to the concerns of his defence chiefs about the capacities of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force while fighting a war in Afghanistan and intervening in Libya by telling them: ‘You do the fighting, I’ll do the talking’.

Is this an appropriate division of labour at time of war? And if not, what should the Prime Minister do?

I am currently writing about current counter-terrorism strategies, and in particular whether critical approaches are wrongly ignoring the lessons of traditional thinkers, and in particular the work of the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz and his 1832 book On War.

Clausewitz is an often-quoted and influential thinker who wrote his philosophy of war in the light of his experience fighting Napoleon during the early nineteenth century. On War has been a key text in military staff colleges and university politics departments ever since.  Clausewitz has even made his way into popular culture, most clearly in the phrase “War is a continuation of politics by other means”.  His acceptance into the mainstream is neatly illustrated by this discussion in the 1995 movie Crimson Tide.

In regard to strategic planning Clausewitz’s most significant contribution is that of the concept of the Remarkable Trinity which stipulates that in order for a war to be conducted effectively it is necessary to maintain a balance between Government, the Military and the Public.  Therefore it is possible to read Cameron’s “You do the fighting, I’ll do the talking” as the Prime Minister trying to stabilise the Trinity and stop the Military from encroaching into the arena of Government and upsetting the Public.  Instead Cameron wishes the generals, air chiefs and admirals to focus on their job and fight.

However (to paraphrase the Crimson Tide discussion) what Clausewitz actually argued was a little more complicated.  The Trinity of Government, Military and Public is a simplification of Clausewitz’s original idea.  For Clausewitz wrote:

As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity–composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force [Public]; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam [Military]; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone [Government].

This was simplified by Colonel Harry Summer in his influential analysis of the Vietnam War On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. Yet, while this new Trinity is a useful tool to help illustrate the complexity of war, it loses the nuance that is necessary to truly understand it.

Clausewitz’s pithier and better well-know remark is similarly more complicated.  Rather than being ‘a continuation of politics’, a place where soldiers fight and stop talking, war is rather a continuation of ‘policy’.  Some may think this a semantic distinction but when viewed in conjunction with the Trinity the role of political leadership is altered significantly.  And it places the words of the defence chiefs into a different light.

This is because, so far as Clausewitz is concerned, in time of war the Military and Public are subordinate to the realm of reason, that is: Government.  It is not government’s role to talk the talk, but rather to think the thought.  Having determined the policy, government needs to win public approval and ensure the military are able to carry it out.

When Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Simon Bryant, made their concerns known, they were carrying out their roles as Clausewitz envisaged.  As an instrument of policy it is the military’s duty to obtain the resources necessary to carry out the job asked of them.  Whilst it is not Cameron’s role to pander to these requests, he does have an obligation to listen.  In short, whilst it is the military’s job to fight, the government’s primary task is to think, and ensure that any military action to which they commit the armed forces is both necessary and has a clear, achievable objective.

As the operations in Libya escalate it is important that each part of the Trinity (the public as much as the military and other politicians) scrutinise what is happening, and ensure that Cameron is thinking – and not just talking.

Liam McCarthy

Extremism: what we can learn from Sweden

I’m writing this on my return flight from Stockholm, where we held the last workshop in our Chatham House project on Understanding and Dealing with the Spread of Populist Extremism. The project explores the rise of populist extremist parties across Europe, and considers how various actors – from mainstream parties to the media – might respond. To this end, representatives from the Swedish Parliament, Proventus, Open Society, the Smith Institute and universities of Amsterdam and Stockholm gathered around a table to talk about the Swedish experience. The discussion was timely: at the most recent set of elections the extreme right Swedish Democrats (SD) entered Parliament with 20 seats, after polling over 5% of the vote.

Even before sitting down, there quickly emerged some interesting comparisons between the Brits and Swedes. Their ruthlessly efficient Ikea-style hotels, for instance, contrast sharply with my usual jaunts at Premier Inn (I was even offered a comprehensive ‘pillow menu’). And then there was the effortlessly cool dress-code of Swedish academics, which puts the traditional attire evident at the annual conference of the Political Studies Association (PSA) to shame. But there also emerged more substantive points, particularly in terms of Sweden’s experience with populist extremism (these observations, by the way, owe much to a presentation by Professor Jens Rydgren).

The first relates to electoral history. Like the Brits, until recently the Swedes never really had to worry about extremism. The Swedish equivalents to the BNP long struggled to mobilise and sustain a challenge. This failure was shaped by several trends. One was the way in which socio-economic issues long dominated the agenda, while the salience of the extreme right’s core social and cultural issues (for example immigration and national identity) remained low. Another was the way in which there remained substantial policy differences between the main parties, which ensured choice for Swedes at elections and reduced space available to extremist ‘entrepreneurs’. The last was the way in which, for many years, extreme right-wing parties themselves failed to present themselves as a legitimate and credible alternative. Like the Brits, these trends fostered a dismissive view of extremists and their potential.

The second point, however, concerns how this landscape has changed. As in Britain, Swedes are now much more anxious about those socio-cultural issues which favour the extreme right. At the same time, much like Labour and the Conservatives the main parties have converged on the centre ground, thereby reducing political choice, fuelling a sense among voters that ‘they are all the same’ and opening space for populist ‘outsiders’. And lastly, similar to the BNP the SD responded by investing more seriously in their organization, ideology and strategy. So much so, in fact, that some sections of the Swedish media began softening their position toward the SD (for example by referring to them as ‘populist’ rather than ‘extremist’). The SD have clearly been more successful than their British cousins, but both parties have strong links and the lesson from Sweden is not lost on activists looking toward a possible post-Griffin era.

This brings me to my final point, which concerns electoral potential. The consensus around the table at the Stockholm workshop was that, due to the above trends, there remains considerable potential for the SD to keep growing. Drawing on evidence in my new book, I have similarly argued that despite the recent implosion of the BNP there remains considerable scope  for a populist, anti-immigrant party in Britain. Perhaps one of the main differences between Britain and Sweden is that the extreme right in the former has not yet found a credible formula.

The failure of the BNP at recent elections in England and Wales will lead many to return to a dismissive view of the movement and its prospects. But as the experience of Sweden demonstrates, it is possible for a movement that was once derided as an extremist farce to revitalize its fortunes and become a significant electoral force.

Matthew Goodwin

Yes, ex-Prime Minister

The Independent’s Steve Richards recently highlighted the existence of an ‘informal alliance’ between David Cameron and Tony Blair. Richards suggested that this ‘alliance’ is based on a policy agenda embraced by many of those who worked closest with Blair in government as well as some of Cameron’s most trusted Cabinet colleagues.

I reflected on the significance of this ‘alliance’ for Liberal Conspiracy – the UK’s most popular left-of-centre politics blog. I offered some thoughts about what it says both about Blair’s relationship with Labour; and, more generally, about the reasons why certain ex-Prime Ministers now allow themselves to be appropriated by their former rivals.

Steven Fielding

Cameron: cave canem!

Towards the end of his lecture at Nottingham University on 9 June 2011, Martin Wolff from the Financial Times argued that one of the most surprising facts of the current economic crisis is the silence of the Left. This is currently true, to some extent. The Left however may soon prove to be the dog that not only barks, but also bites.

Since the autumn of 2007, the global economy has been in turmoil over the financial crisis. Nevertheless, while banks are making profits again and bonuses in the City have soared, the rest of us have to pay for the government’s bailout of failing banks through a draconian programme of public sector cuts. And yet, there has so far been hardly a challenge by the Left. How can we understand this lack of resistance, this dearth of alternative proposals?

Thirteen years of New Labour in power are clearly an important part of the answer. Instead of challenging the neo-liberal restructuring by the previous Conservative governments, New Labour extended it into the public sector and intensified discourses of consumer choice and private sector efficiency. A lot of current coalition government policies including the partial privatisation of public services and the increase in university tuition fees of up to £9000 per year are simply an exacerbation of the previous government’s policies. Such policies have not only extended restructuring, they further contributed to a normalisation of the neo-liberal discourse of inevitable adjustment to global restructuring. As a result, Thatcher’s slogan of ‘there is no alternative’ was further cemented in people’s minds and contributed to their disempowerment.

And yet, this is only part of the story. Global restructuring has not only put trade unions under pressure, but as I have pointed out in this book it has also put weapons in the hands of workers, which make a progressive strategy possible.

First, several large demonstrations against the cuts have already taken place with students and academics taking the lead on 10 November 2010, followed by one of the largest demonstrations ever in London on 26 March 2011. This was complemented by several strikes as, for example, in Further and Higher Education during the same month.

Second, a range of trade unions is in the process of mounting a challenge to the coalition government. The National Union of  Teachers is balloting its members for industrial action over changes to the teachers’ pension system, as is the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) is also asking its members to endorse industrial action over jobs, pensions and pay. The goal is to organise together with the Further Education section of the University and College Union (UCU) a joint day of action on 30 June. Other unions, although not part of industrial action on that day, have also indicated their intentions to intensify their activities against the cuts. The Higher Education section of UCU has just announced new plans of balloting its members for industrial action in the autumn, Unison, the large public sector union, and Unite, organising workers in the public and private sector, are contemplating similar steps.

What is in the making here is potentially large scale industrial action in the public sector and beyond with increasing calls on the Trades Union Congress to call for a general strike. Importantly, this resistance is backed up with alternative proposals. As the PCS makes clear on its web site, a Robin Hood Tax on currency transactions, a stronger effort by the state to tackle tax avoidance by large corporations or a withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan could save billions of pounds and be much more effective than budget cuts.

Trade unions are not alone in this struggle. Social movements such as UK Uncut and its direct action campaigns or the Right to Work campaign, but also NGOs including War on Want have joined the fight.

What is emerging is a broad left movement, which promises to mobilise large parts of society against the cuts. Under such pressure it is possible that the coalition government may well collapse – the Liberal Democrats are most vulnerable here. That the Business Secretary Vince Cable recently threatened tougher anti–trade union laws should there be co-ordinated strike action suggests the government is already feeling the heat.

In short – with Dave Prentis of Unison now promising the biggest walk out since the General Strike over government pension reforms – while Martin Wolff might not have heard it, the dog has already barked, and it threatens to become noisier still. So, as the Romans once warned: cave canem!

Andreas Bieler