The Blog

When Voting Loses Its Meaning, the Far-Right Triumphs

The real story behind the rise of these parties is neither an over-bearing European Union nor rampant immigration, but that governments around the world have failed to cooperate to reign in the global forces that make austerity, immigration and unemployment inevitable.

The "earthquake" promised by Britain's UK Independence Party, France's Front National, and other populist parties across Europe finally arrived with the results of the European elections. But the real story behind the rise of these parties is neither an over-bearing European Union nor rampant immigration, but that governments around the world have failed to cooperate to reign in the global forces that make austerity, immigration and unemployment inevitable.

Finding themselves comprehensively outmaneuvered by globally mobile financial markets, governments have no choice but to implement severe austerity measures. With multinational corporations playing one tax jurisdiction off against another, cash-strapped governments have no choice but to switch taxes to the middle classes. And with low paid jobs being outsourced by corporations to anywhere that's cheaper, what can governments do? Very little, as it turns out. Not surprisingly, whichever party we vote for, not much changes. Voting has become pretty meaningless. Little wonder there's a growing section of each national population that's looking for simple, isolationist solutions. The real forces at work, here, are neither national, nor even European, but voters do not care. Nor do they understand. Oblivious to the fact that globalisation is the real cause of their frustration, they blame something - anything - that's closer to home. In the 1930s it was the Jews; in 2014 it's the EU (- the very institution, ironically, whose mission it was to forever end the forces that gave rise to Nazism).

The key issues, here, are economic migration and unemployment. On both, voters are right to be concerned. Much economic migration has come from Eastern Europe, but what's happening in Europe is just a microcosm of what's happening in the wider world. As those in impoverished developing countries find themselves unable to make a decent living at home, it's not surprising they migrate to Europe or to other developed parts of the world. Within the EU, likewise, citizens in Eastern Europe seek a better life in Western Europe. In the bigger scheme of things, then, it's not so much Europe that's to blame, but the forces of globalisation. Whether nations remain in the EU or leave it, economic migration will not go away.

On unemployment, the reality is that the high-cost EU cannot maintain its competitiveness in a globalised world, any more than it can withstand the pressure of global markets. Whether nations stay or leave the EU, the result is likely to be much the same. As the Euro crisis showed, even the EU as a block was unable to withstand the 'wrecking ball' of global bond markets and had to implement what amounts to an undemocratic fiscal union. But nations choosing to leave the EU will fare no better. Whether large or small, each nation effectively stands alone at the mercy of global markets. With global investors and corporations able to easily move their domiciles, operations, and thousands of jobs across national borders, any government that fails to keep its economy "internationally competitive" will lose out. Governments, we must understand, are not in control!

France is a case in point. Francois Hollande came to power to implement a left-wing agenda in response to growing inequality and high unemployment. But global markets quickly forced him to recant. As The Times (15th January, 2014) reported, "After 18 months of stagnation under orthodox socialist leadership, [Hollande] confirmed that he was swinging towards the market-friendly policies adopted over the past 15 years by left-wing parties in Germany, Britain and elsewhere." With governments unable to act in favour of the poor or the marginalised, the only beneficiaries, predictably, are the Marine Le Pens of this world. The reforms to the EU that Hollande calls for to head off the far-right thus miss the point. He has not understood that the problem lies not with Europe but with globalisation.

With governments comprehensively outmaneuvered by global markets, voting has indeed lost its meaning. Having no choice but to implement a narrow set of policies that conform to market and corporate demands, all parties in power end up like clones. That's why these days the Left looks much like the Right. Labour's Tony Blair was often said to be the best Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher. Or, as former Conservative Prime Minister John Major put it (in The Week, 29 October, 1999): "I went swimming leaving my clothes on the bank and when I came back Tony Blair was wearing them".

Voters have rightly lost faith in politics. They either don't bother to vote or they seek solace in facile populist "solutions". Were populist parties actually to gain power, yes, immigration figures might fall somewhat. But there would be a much heavier price to pay as global markets would severely punish any nation that put up barriers to economic migration or to capital mobility. Unemployment would end up even worse than it is now. Here, populist parties have no more of an answer to the forces of globalisation than their mainstream counterparts.

The reality all politicians are failing to confront is that the era of the sovereign nation-state is over. Politicians have not understood that we now live in the age where only global cooperation can work. For heading off the far-right means cooperating globally to reign in global markets, over-powerful corporations and redistributing wealth nationally as well as transnationally to rectify wealth inequalities. National sovereignty needs to confine itself to a more modest agenda and to give way to a broader global solidarity on the bigger global issues that confront us. In that sense, it's not that globalisation has gone too far, but that it has not gone far enough. It's only half-baked. It is an economic globalisation, but not yet a political one. That need not mean world government; only that the problems we face can only be solved if nations cooperate to reign in unaccountable global markets, corporations, banks, the rich and the tax avoiders. If governments did, they'd have the money to solve almost any problem, domestic or foreign. Finding that they could once again adequately tax the rich, the banks and the multinationals, governments could ensure that all of their citizens had a decent job, decent public services and a healthy environment. Today's mainstream politicians need to realise that their only defence against far-right populism lies in completing globalisation through meaningful global cooperation.

Do that, and the major problems of our age will be solved. Voting, moreover, will recover its meaning, and far-right populism will once again be confined to its proper place on the margins. But fail to do that, and we may well find ourselves answering the awkward question our children often put to us: "Dad, Mum, how did Nazi Germany start?"