As Europe turns right, why has a center-left party won by a landslide in the UK?

Luke McGee

The United Kingdom’s decision to hand the center-left Labour Party a parliamentary majority comes at the same time Europe is broadly in the grip of what some call a right-wing populist surge.

Last month’s European elections saw a historic number of lawmakers from hard-right and far-right parties elected to the European Parliament. The results caused such chaos that French President Emmanuel Macron called a snap parliamentary election in his own country, the first round of which the far-right National Rally won last week.

A government comprised of far-right figures was formed in the Netherlands this week. Italy is led by the most right-wing leader since the rule of fascist wartime leader Benito Mussolini. These electoral victories and the prospect of populist right-wingers in power is no longer a surprise in European countries.

There are many reasons for this rise in populism, often unique to individual countries. But broadly speaking, a number of European countries are suffering from sluggish economies, high immigration and higher energy prices, due in part to the drive for carbon net zero. The European Union is often blamed for national woes by populist politicians and breathes oxygen into an increasingly Euroskeptic national discourse.

So why is Britain, the only country where Euroskepticism led to a referendum on EU membership, bucking this trend?

Despite the scale of the Labour victory, it is clear from the results that the British right is far from dead. The Conservative Party, despite its undeniably disappointing night, is set to outperform the expectations of a number of opinion polls during the campaign, some of which predicted it would win fewer than 100 seats – which would have been a truly epic wipeout.

Another party that is exceeding polling expectations is the populist right-wing Reform UK, led by long-term scourge of the Conservatives, Nigel Farage, who is perhaps best known these days for his friendship with former US President Donald Trump. Before this, he was credited with making Brexit possible after decades of campaigning against the UK’s membership of the EU.

Farage’s political success to date has all come without him holding a parliamentary seat. Now he is not only won a seat himself, but will have a small band of colleagues ready to hurl grenades at Labour leader Keir Starmer. While this may seem small fry compared to Starmer’s three-figure majority, Farage will no doubt influence the debate on the future direction of the Conservative Party, possibly by dragging it further to the right.

It is possible that Farage’s splitting of the right has actually helped Starmer on his way to such a huge victory. An odd quirk of British politics is that the percentage of votes a party gets doesn’t necessarily translate to seats. Every seat is decided individually, the winner being the candidate with the most votes, which is often less than 50%.

And with Reform performing well in many of the seats that Labour won, the hard-right will not only be impossible to ignore in this parliament, but it could easily see its influence grow further.

Britain suffers from many of the same problems as other European countries. If Starmer falters as prime minister, there is every chance that the popular right could continue to capture the public’s imagination, as it has elsewhere in Europe.

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