Lessons for UKIP from the populist parties of Europe

Italy’s Lega Nord scores a victory in parliament. EPA/Ettore Ferrari

With a hung parliament looking the most likely outcome in the 2015 UK election, the Conservatives and Labour may have to contemplate deals with parties they have so far shunned. For David Cameron, that could even mean doing business with UKIP – a subject he has tried to avoid during the campaign.

Nigel Farage has been less reticent. He has said he does not want a ministerial role but has suggested that UKIP could back a Conservative government.

He may be making a wise move here. Our research into the experiences of continental right-wing populist parties who have reached office over the past decade suggests that government participation carries considerable risks for them.

The Austrian Freedom Party’s troubled time in coalition after 2000, which saw it lose both votes and ministers at an alarming rate before eventually suffering a split, is often trotted out as a case in point.

When it works

However, we found that government participation isn’t necessarily bad for populists, especially if it’s not their first time in office. The experiences of Italy’s Northern League between 2008 and 2011 and the Swiss People’s Party between 2003 and 2007 show that right-wing populists can thrive in power if they are able to focus on their key themes. Both parties not only achieved some of their main policy aims in government, but were also able to keep their party members onside in the process.

For instance, as the minister responsible for asylum and immigration, the Swiss People’s Party leader Christoph Blocher oversaw a reduction in the number of asylum applications and in the financial burden of the asylum system on the taxpayer.

Christoph Blocher, of the Swiss People’s Party. EPA/Steffan Schmidt

As for the Northern League, the party sensibly focused almost entirely on its key themes of federal reform, immigration and law and order. As a result, it was seen to own these themes by the electorate. On federalism in particular, it was able to push through measures that it could credibly claim as important successes.

We found that representatives and members of the two parties were far from the radical hotheads with unrealistic expectations that many in the media considered them to be. In our interviews, they were pragmatic about the policy gains that could be achieved in government, and valued the opportunity to at least make some progress on issues they cared about. When asked in our surveys whether they were happy with their parties’ actions in government, the great majority of members and supporters said they were.

The UKIP plan

Of course, the crucial difference between these parties and UKIP is that they had already served before in office nationally and locally. Our research suggests that this experience is crucial to the success of populists in power. And experience of government, at any institutional level, is something UKIP clearly lacks.

Moreover, the endless series of blunders by UKIP representatives in recent months must remind Farage that his party remains largely a one-man band. UKIP would pay for that if in power.

So Farage’s proposal to keep one foot in and one foot out of government by providing parliamentary support for the Conservatives without sitting in government is therefore the sensible choice at this stage in UKIP’s lifespan.

Once again, continental comparisons show that this can work for right-wing populists. For example, the decision by the Danish People’s Party to provide parliamentary support for the mainstream centre-right from 2001 to 2011 brought electoral and policy gains, especially on immigration.

By propping up a Conservative minority government in exchange for the promise of an early referendum on EU membership, Farage would be seen by his supporters to be still respecting UKIP’s status as an “outsider”.

At the same time, he could avoid sharing responsibility for unpopular government decisions (such as the cuts to child benefits that the Conservatives’ opponents claim will be introduced if they remain in government). But he could also make visible progress on UKIP’s key theme of Europe. He would be able to show that a vote for UKIP is not a “wasted vote”.

The real question is whether such a deal would be in the Conservative Party’s interests, or whether, counter-intuitive as it may seem, the smart move would be to bring UKIP into the cabinet.

A parliamentary support deal would allow the Tories to keep their distance from UKIP. But it would also put them in the double bind of being in Farage’s pocket on the EU, while remaining open to his attacks on immigration and other issues. Cameron might then find himself thinking about Farage, like Lyndon Johnson famously did about J Edgar Hoover, that it is better to have him inside the tent pissing out rather than outside the tent pissing in.