I MAY, at last, have found an answer to my Burnley conundrum. Years ago, I visited the northern mill town to find why it was electing British National Party councillors. The obvious explanation lay in an economically depressed town divided into Asian areas and all-white estates, whose jobless inhabitants were easy prey for racist propaganda. But there was one ward that was a genuine puzzle.
It was not part of the disadvantaged inner-city area. It was a leafy village on the outskirts. Its village green, country pub, and picturesque houses seemed classic Conservative territory. Why was it going BNP?
We are all less sure about the politics of the far Right nowadays. National populism is on the rise throughout Europe, as the general election in Spain this week shows once more. The result has been the humiliation of the mainstream conservative Popular Party, which ruled the country until last year. It lost more than half its seats. Its share of the vote was not much more than the right-wing Citizens party; and the newly arrived Vox party, which is even more right-wing on immigration and Islam, was close behind. Vox is the first far-Right group to win seats in Spain since the death of Franco.
There are lessons from this fragmentation of the Right for the British Conservative party. It is threatened with electoral wipeout, if European elections happen later this month. The latest poll shows the Brexit Party on 28 per cent, Labour on 23 per cent, and the Tories on a measly 13 per cent — only just ahead of the Greens and Change UK (both ten per cent): the LibDems are on seven per cent, and UKIP just five per cent. On what basis can the Conservatives hope to win the next General Election?
Analysis by a top Tory psephologist suggests two ways out. They can return to the one-nation politics of David Cameron, and win back the middle-of-the-road vote. Or they can go for a leader such as Boris Johnson, and adopt the British equivalent of Vox’s unapologetic jingoistic flag-waving nationalism, to reclaim the Brexit and UK vote. The figures suggest that they could beat Labour with either strategy. But, if they remain with Theresa May’s stuck-in-the-middle irritating-everyone approach, they will lose drastically.
But there is another lesson from Spain. Beneath all the headlines about Vox, the centre-left Socialists quietly gained ground, while the far-Left Podemos retreated. Coalition deal-making lies ahead, as do negotiations to resolve the constitutional problem of Catalonian independence — an issue every bit as intractable as Brexit. The parallels with the UK are far from exact: Brexit has split Labour, and it is, as yet, unclear how potent a force Change UK can be.
This is where the Burnley conundrum comes in. Research by the political scientist Matthew Goodwin on the rise of populism in 1930s Europe explodes the myth that the left-behind poor drift into fascism. Historical analysis suggests, rather, that the unemployed tend to vote for the radical Left: it is the scared middle classes who shift to the Right. Analysis from Spain suggests that Vox similarly found support among wealthier culturally conservative voters. That may explain Burnley’s leafy suburb.
So, economic hardship and cultural change can still cause national populism, but they do so indirectly. There is food for thought in that for Conservatives and Labour alike.