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Populism

28/06/2013 11:11 BST | Updated 27/08/2013 10:12 BST

Insulting populism fuels extremism

Populism is on the rise, not just here in Britain but globally. It's no good dismissing it, ignoring it or attacking it. It's no good ridiculing, insulting or bullying populist voters. We need to understand how populist parties have changed over the decades and why modern populist parties are gaining ground. We need to talk openly about the issues and tackle their voters' concerns head on. Only by accepting modern populist parties exist can we hope to counter their rise and welcome people back into the mainstream political parties.

Many in government have thus far underestimated Ukip and their appeal. Much of this is down to a widespread feeling that they are 'just' an old-school, traditional populist party, a flash in the pan, a protest group. The old-style definition of a populist movement or party is that of a far-right extremist group. However, things have moved on since the 1970s and populist politics is coming of age. According to a report by think-tank Demos published in 2011 (The New Face of Digital Populism):

"While often described as 'far right', the ideology of many of these groups represents a mixture of left-wing and right-wing political and economic beliefs with populist rhetoric and policy'. The report goes on: 'Populist political parties are enjoying unprecedented electoral success and growing membership. In the last decade, many have moved from the fringes of society to become integral members of coalition governments and important political forces, capable of shifting mainstream political debate."

Some of the quotes in the report are very illuminating and do not bode well for any mainstream party in the UK. One Italian respondent suggested how disillusionment with the political class manifested itself as support for Italy's Lega Nord: 'I hate politicians; they are all disgusting, especially when they get to the armchair of power. Since they are all the same, I choose the ones that defend my homeland'. Another, a supporter of Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden said: 'My ancestry is from Eastern Europe but my parents taught me that you go with the practice of the place you move to and respect the country and integrate. Suddenly other parties want something completely different. It doesn't work in the long run. I want to live in Sweden, not a multicultural fiasco'.

According to Paul Taggart, Professor of Politics and Head of the Department of Politics at the University of Sussex, writing for the centre-left think tank, Policy Network: 'The essence of populism is that it is distinctively not an extreme position. At its heart lies an ambivalence about politics, but once stirred into action, populists have clearly overcome this political reluctance. As a political force, populism is self-consciously reformist rather than revolutionary. Populism makes a point of not challenging the fundamental rules of the political game and, in many cases, complains that the problem is that those rules are not being followed by the established politicians. It works within the framework of representative politics, adopting a position that allows it to redefine the meaning of the rules, but not to advocate a changing of the game. The 'danger' of populism is therefore that it works within existing politics while having the effect of changing the behaviour of other actors'. Sound familiar?

So, to simply dismiss these types of parties and those who vote for them as nothing more than racist, right-wing extremists, is both dangerous and wrong. It's that broad misconception that has led senior figures to insult and alienate UKIP voters as 'loonies', 'clowns' and 'closet racists'. This must stop. All politicians have a duty to ensure that we do not create a social climate where mainstream populism tips over into mass extremism.