In Germany, the ruling CDU initially formed a government in Thuringia with the supporting votes of elected members of the AfD – described as a ‘far right’ party. Chancellor Merkel was outraged.
Forming any kind of alliance with, or leaning on the support of, the AfD had long been a taboo. And remains so even as the AfD’s share of the vote in the Eastern part of Germany continues to increase.
The Irish election seems to have yielded Sinn Fein as having obtained the largest share of votes. The party has clearly managed to escape its negative association with the IRA and its performance in this election has shocked the two mainstream parties that were used to having the field to themselves. Again, the main parties have, so far, come out with the statement that they will not form a government that includes Sinn Fein.
Similar challenges are playing out everywhere.
What does this all mean? What does it mean when parties that have increasing support among the voting public continue to be shunned by the mainstream as being illegitimate? Once again, is this a case of having to tell the voters that they have it wrong?
There are common threads underlying the success of these shunned parties.
First, and possibly most important, is that they are offering credible change while mainstream parties languish in defending the indefensible status quo. Whether this clinging to the status quo is because of a lack of ideas, inherent timidity, inability to abandon the same old mantras that they have been spouting for fifty years, or a combination of all of these, the net effect is that these parties are out of touch with the public mood.
A mood of great dissatisfaction, lack of trust in the establishment, and a general ‘we’ve had enough of you’ sentiment.
Boris Johnson managed to position his party – the ‘Conservative’ party of all things – as an agent of change. Brexit, levelling-up, much hyped spending plans, etc. All combined with a general feeling of optimism. Jeremy Corbyn also offered change – but one that was both non-credible, unpalatable, and Grinch-like. The Liberal Democrats offered nothing but the status quo with a bit of tinkering around the edges.
Second, these challengers have no qualms about tackling head-on some of the key issues that concern voters and that mainstream parties seem terrified of addressing. Immigration is maybe the main issue that falls into this category.
Not for the challengers to feel trapped by the straitjacket of political correctness. Quite the contrary. Some, like the AfD, stray into xenophobia and divisive identity politics. This is what the mainstream parties, rightly, object to. But an increasing proportion of voters seemingly don’t care. They want their issues addressed rather than tiptoed around for fear of offending someone, somewhere.
Merely shutting out these challengers and hoping that they will go away isn’t going to get anyone anywhere. It will probably continue to strengthen them – and irritate those who voted for them or are thinking of doing so next time round.
Unless the mainstream parties can convert themselves into agents of change and, rather than shying away, start addressing what they consider sensitive and difficult issues with credible approaches, then the challengers, distasteful as some of them might be, will continue to gain ground.
Rather than pointing the finger, sitting on their moral high horse, look down on everyone else, and keep believing that they are the only ones that have a right to rule, mainstream parties should look in the mirror and do something. Whether they have the capability of doing that is another question.
Boris Johnson managed it. But the Conservative Party has two core advantages that are denied to many others.
The first is that the leadership has more power than in many other parties who, in the name of a kitsch ‘democracy’, have internal bureaucratic and voting structures whose greatest skill is to suffocate change and kill new ideas.
The second is that the Conservative Party knows what it is there for – to win elections. Not to indulge in its members’ hobby horses; not to preach ideology, however outdated that might have become. No. First, second and third priority is to win elections.
I wonder whether others are capable of developing the chameleon-like nature that is essential for political parties to move with the rapidly changing times.