Now that the debate has closed engagement was supported by 73% of those voting in the debate, confirming a trend in favour of engagement since the start of the debate.
What the debate has achieved is to have clarified the form of isolation or engagement speakers on either side of the argument favour. In the process some common ground has emerged between those advocating engagement and those calling for isolation. Both sides agree that it is important to engage with these parties’ supporters, to address their concerns and challenge their prejudices. The difference between the two camps is over the effect of formal alliances and political co-operation on mainstream parties and their policies.
Matthew Goodwin has argued that drawing far-right parties into everyday political processes, which require messy compromises, can tame extremist stances and expose the emptiness of campaign slogans. Kinga Göncz maintains that collaborating with nationalist parties can drag the mainstream parties into adopting extreme positions. She gives the example of the Danish People’s Party which supported a mainstream conservative government in return for a tightening of immigration policy.
The electoral performance of far-right parties has ebbed and flowed in recent years. Support for Vlaams Belang, a anti-immigrant Flemish nationalist party, has slumped. Jobbik, Hungary’s nationalist party, has seen its share of the vote tumble. In three months’ time, voters will go to the polls for the European Parliament elections. Nationalist and populist parties are expected to record their best-ever result. The Front National and UKIP, both opposed to EU membership and seeking limits on immigration, could have the largest number of MEPs in their national delegations. It would be wrong though to see this as an avalanche of support for the radical right. Voters are comfortable with using European Parliament elections to protest against sitting governments and mainstream parties, knowing that the political make-up of the Parliament has less direct effect on their daily lives than the composition of national governments.
If the Parliament elections turn out as predicted, the message of disdain and disapproval from voters to the elite should not be ignored. The failure of elites and the mainstream parties to take action to respond to citizens’ concerns about the economy and unemployment has been one of the themes of the online debate.
The challenge for mainstream parties is to find a way to address the concerns of voters who believe that the political class is indifferent to their worries and who turn to extremist parties which offer slogans in place of solutions.
As economic conditions are set to continue, substantial support for the far right is likely to continue. Finding a way to deal with the problems and concerns that fuel this support is, as Matthew Goodwin writes, “one of the most pressing challenges” for politicians. This debate has only scratched the surface of what the right answer should be but it has confirmed that critical engagement combined with vigorous defence of democratic principles will be part of that answer.
I would like to thank the two speakers for their contribution to the debate and the four guest speakers who have added to the discussion over the last week.