Populist extremist parties (PEPs) present one of the most pressing challenges to European democracies, says a new report by Chatham House. Parties such as the Front National in France, Sweden Democrats and Austrian Freedom Party continue to rally large and durable levels of support, even among some of the most economically secure and highly educated regions of Europe. But their appeal and the profile of their supporters remain poorly understood.

Right Response: Understanding and Countering the Rise of Populist Extremism in Europe examines what is causing citizens across Europe to shift support behind populist extremists and recommends how mainstream political parties can respond to the challenge. The report’s author, [directory 52884], has investigated the characteristics and concerns of PEP supporters, the messages and wider potential of populist extremism, and outlines six possible response strategies. 

The rise of these parties is often traced to public anxiety over threats to jobs, social housing and the welfare state. Instead, this new report provides convincing evidence that mainstream political parties need to go beyond making the economic case for immigration and begin making the case for cultural diversity.

Matthew Goodwin says:

'PEPs have spent much of the past two decades exchanging strategies and ideas. This has enabled them to respond more innovatively and effectively than the mainstream parties. Until the mainstream parties begin to exchange lessons and address the actual anxieties of PEP voters – specifically over the cultural impact of immigration and rising diversity – populist extremists will continue to attract significant support, and could find a new generation of citizens increasingly receptive to their message.'

Key findings of the report include: 

  • Contrary to popular assumption, PEPs that were allowed to participate in the wider political system tended, over time, to move away from more extreme positions. The implication of this finding is that exclusion actually prevents extremist parties from abandoning their more extreme ideological stances.
  • Many PEPs lack the money and manpower to be consistently active, but their websites are often the most innovative available. Where they do invest resources, they often focus heavily on traditional campaigning methods. Voters in some towns in Britain experienced more face-to face contact with activist from PEPs than from the mainstream parties. 
  • Mainstream parties should be part of their community, have an active and visible presence and forge stronger links to local groups and forums. In practical terms, this means standing full slates of candidates at the local level, engaging with voters face-to-face and redirecting some resources to revitalizing grassroots campaigns. 
  • Supporters of PEPs are heavily concentrated among the lower middle classes and skilled or unskilled working class men, citizens who lack formal qualifications and are economically insecure.  
  • Their concerns about immigration and cultural diversity do not stem simply from economic grievances over jobs and social housing; they appear to stem from a belief that immigration, minority groups and diversity are threatening national culture.  

'There is no uniform response to PEPs, each strategy comes with risks,' continues Matthew Goodwin. 'Engagement and interaction – which focus more heavily on the local arena – offer the best prospects for progress.'

Notes to Editors  

Right Responses: Understanding and Countering the Rise of Populist Extremism in Europe

The report is part of a Chatham House research project analysing the rise of extremist parties across the continent. More. 

[directory 52884], Associate Fellow, Europe, Chatham House; and Lecturer, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham 
+44 (0)7929 045 857 
[email protected]

The author is available for interview.

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