The reasons for the far right’s re-emergence in Europe and elsewhere are varied, multifaceted and do not readily generalise. It is also the case that there are contradictory dynamics at work. While electoral support for far-right parties has trebled from about 5 per cent in the 1990s to more than 15 per cent today, this has often fluctuated in place and time. In recent years we have seen right-wing radicalisation coincide with major setbacks for the far right, the events of 2020 demonstrating how quickly things can move in either or both directions. Political parties have come and gone, while far-right social movements are an even more diverse and volatile phenomenon.
We need to be careful about overstating the causal relationships that have facilitated far-right politics, which can only really be understood in relation to their specific historical, social and material circumstances. In particular, it is important to avoid catch-all explanations such as that of a cultural backlash against globalisation, cosmopolitanism and immigration, which is popular among much of the commentariat. However, there are a few observations worth making that might support a trade union understanding of, and response to, the far right’s re-emergence.
One thing that has happened in recent decades is that far-right parties have found ways of mobilising electoral support even as voter turnout has declined across Europe. This is partly down to the use of new political styles and methods of communication, the emergence of new anti-establishment formations and the relative success of established far-right parties in moderating their images. The prime example of this is the strategy of dédiabolisation (or detoxification) adopted by the French Front National (FN) under Marine Le Pen. Since becoming leader in 2011, Le Pen has worked to broaden the FN’s electoral base by distancing the party from its fascist origins, rebranding as Rassemblement National and overseeing the expulsion of her father Jean-Marie, the party’s long-time leader. This has also involved a calculated shift from antisemitic rhetoric to a more pronounced anti-immigrant, Islamophobic position, together with a pro-industry and superficially pro-worker agenda. Far-right parties in Italy, Norway, Sweden and Austria have undergone similar rebranding exercises in order to strengthen their electoral appeal.
The last 30 years has seen a convergence of the political centre in its support for a market-driven economic model, including the rightward drift of social democratic parties. Sociocultural issues such as crime, immigration and terrorism – the main focal points of the far right – have been a focus of mainstream politics over the last 20 years, helping to legitimise and normalise the far right. Terms such as ‘the war on terror’, a consistent focus on ‘illegal’ asylum seekers and the introduction of citizen tests in the 2000s a precursor to ‘the hostile environment’ this decade have changed both language and policies.
Where parties of the radical right have not managed to constitute governments themselves, they have been able to influence government formation and policy in a variety of ways. From its establishment in 1995, the Danish People’s Party (DF) has contributed to a rightward shift in the immigration and asylum politics of Denmark, both through cooperation with governments (2001–11 and 2016–19) and by virtue of its influence on public discourse. In other cases, the convergence between centre-right parties and the radical right has been formalised as a coalition government, as in the case of the Lega in Italy, FPÖ in Austria, Ataka in Bulgaria, the Swiss People’s Party and the PVV in the Netherlands. In an increasing number of countries, new and established parties of the radical right have come to be regarded as acceptable coalition partners, a pattern encouraged by the fragmentation of political systems and voting patterns. Incorporation into parliamentary politics and government formations has meant the normalisation of radical right-wing parties, providing even greater scope for breaking taboos and setting new precedents.
Yet this is not the whole story. There are a number of parties that have simultaneously gathered electoral support and radicalised, rather than moderating their politics for electoral gain. The AfD provides just one illustrative example, since it has evolved from a marginal right-wing Eurosceptic party into one with significant electoral support and a powerful neofascist wing. In the case of Le Pen’s party, we can see that it has undergone a partial, managed and largely cosmetic process of detoxification, maintaining close links with individuals and movements that have an affiliation with France’s fascist past. Still others have attempted to redefine themselves as mainstream conservative parties, but at the cost of internal tensions and splits. Jobbik in Hungary, for example, has spawned a breakaway party known as Our Homeland Movement (MHM), which retains all of Jobbik’s original antisemitic, neofascist trappings and has wasted no time in establishing its own paramilitary unit.
Even where parties of the far right make electoral inroads, they can find themselves locked out of government. In Belgium, Sweden, Spain and Germany, for instance, far-right parties have come up against a cordon sanitaire imposed by traditional parties at a national level: in other words, there is an official or verbal agreement not to include these parties in government formation talks. Similarly, for all of Le Pen’s efforts to reimage her party, a decisive electoral breakthrough continues to elude the RN. This raises an important question: what happens when far-right parties fail to obtain political power, even when they play by the rules of the system? The danger is that this could feed “a potent argument from those who wish to promote more ‘militant’, directly fascist strategies”.
Any discussion of mainstreaming would not be complete without a look at the role of the media. It is commonly suggested that public opinion has shifted dramatically over the past number of decades, and that the mainstreaming of the far right simply reflects the popular demand for tougher positions on matters such as immigration. However, this overstates the degree to which people’s attitudes have hardened on these issues and understates the extent to which “anti-establishment sentiment” has been exploited. It also suggests that ordinary people are solely responsible for driving the mainstreaming process, rather than this process being shaped by elites through the construction of political narratives and the ways in which they choose to manage crises.
Media organisations have contributed to the mainstreaming of far-right ideas and parties in a number of ways. Most obviously, we have seen the growth of powerful corporate media outlets that sympathise with or openly promote radical right-wing agendas. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is Fox News, which has had a significant mobilising effect on Republican voters in the US. But sections of the media have also inflated the significance and impact of the far right in less obvious ways. As part of the drive for ratings, mainstream media outlets have repeatedly platformed prominent far-right politicians such as Trump, Bolsonaro and Nigel Farage, even when these were known to have negligible levels of popular support. As Mudde explains:
To justify the exposure, journalists will often be overly critical, and even combative, arguing that they ‘hold them to account.’ What happens, however, is not just that readers and viewers are exposed to their ideas, but that some will sympathize with the ‘underdog’ far-right politician who is ‘unfairly attacked’ by the ‘arrogant elite.’
An increasing number of studies support this view, noting how the media has contributed to the mainstreaming of the far right in three main ways. Not only have traditional media outlets amplified the far right by offering its proponents a disproportionate level of coverage, but they have helped to normalise their views through “euphemisation and trivialisation” and “agenda-setting”. Euphemisation and trivialisation refers to the way the ‘populist’ label has been used so prolifically and indiscriminately that it has had a trivialising effect on public perceptions of the far right. Agenda-setting relates to the way in which the media has elevated issues such as immigration, crime and benefit fraud in the public imagination, providing the ground on which the far right has been able to mobilise.
There is also substantial evidence that sections of the media have not only conditioned the public to think of certain issues as important, but also influenced what they should think about them. This framing role can be seen most clearly in how the press has reported twenty-first century acts of terrorism, with Muslim perpetrators more likely to be portrayed as having links to Islamic terrorist networks and non-Muslim, white perpetrators more likely to be depicted as ‘lone wolves’ with a mental illness. This pattern of connecting terrorism to Islam has helped to create a climate of fear, simultaneously aiding the objectives of Islamic extremists and pushing people towards radical ethnonational reactions. Research has also found that media coverage of the ‘refugee crisis’ is critical to understanding how policymakers and the public have made sense of these events from 2015 onwards. Specifically, large proportions of the European press have shifted from an empathetic position to one marked by suspicion and hostility, and this has had a hand in feeding negative attitudes towards migration.
Of course, the latest wave of far-right activity cannot be explained without reference to the ascendance of alternative right-wing media outlets, social media and online forums, which play their biggest part in far-right subcultures but have a disproportionate influence on wider political developments. This forms one of the topics of discussion in section 3.
When it comes to formulating a trade union analysis and response to the far right, it is important to understand the structural conditions, systemic processes and changes in social relations that underlie its re-emergence. Across western Europe and North America, neoliberal globalisation has meant deindustrialisation, underemployment and precarious work, wage stagnation, rampant inequality and generalised conditions of insecurity for a large and growing section of the population.
Over the past 40 years, there has been an erosion of the key sources of social and economic security – welfare safety nets, public services, other public goods (eg public housing) and notably trade unions’ ability to represent the interests of their members through means such as collective bargaining.
This has led to the undermining of the “social solidarities that flourished on such stable foundations”. The destruction of working-class communities and institutions has undermined long-held notions of belonging and collectivism. Meanwhile, experiences of poverty and inequality, social isolation, alienation and the culture of intense competition have caused significant pressures on people’s mental health, generating added resentment, mistrust and vulnerability.
Economic insecurity and precariousness have also spread to once-comfortable middle-class households, which have seen their incomes stagnate, cost of living increase and employment prospects become increasingly uncertain. University graduates are more likely to be saddled with debt, overqualified for the jobs they are doing and unable to access the housing market, while their parents face greater financial risks – both as a result of borrowing to meet day-to-day costs and growing pressures on retirement income security. The financial crisis of 2008 and onslaught of austerity served to exacerbate these trends, compounding the fear, anger and disaffection that had been building over decades.
Neoliberalism has also been characterised by the increasing concentration of power and the ‘hollowing out’ of representative democracy. Key decisions are now taken at a remove from the communities that stand to be most affected, by a class of politicians and technocrats drawn from an increasingly narrow layer of society. There has been a conscious political effort to insulate the market from democratic pressures, both within states and internationally. Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and EU operate on the basis of rules and governance structures that can be resistant to democratic intervention. This loss of political as well as economic power has led to a collapse of public confidence in government, political institutions and traditional parties, giving rise to widespread ‘anti-political’ and anti-establishment sentiments.
In the absence of plausible alternatives to rising inequality, and the lack of a successful strategy to oppose to austerity, the far right has been able to advance its own critiques and solutions. Parties and governments of the far right have challenged neoliberalism only in very specific and limited ways, with few clearly departing from orthodoxy when it comes to ownership and control of the economy. But for some of the main losers of neoliberalism (the unemployed, former manual workers and communities in deindustrialised regions), and those desperate to hold onto what they have (small business owners, the lower middle-class, people in or near retirement), far-right attacks on elite parties and institutions can represent the closest thing to an anti-systemic critique.
In addition, the far right, working hand-in-hand with the centre right, has been successful in promoting the idea that greater social equality for immigrants and other marginalised groups is the cause of people’s deprived economic conditions. Programmes advocating immigration restrictions, restricting welfare benefits to ‘native’ inhabitants and cultural conservatism hold particular appeal because they have the appearance of a collective response, articulated through the lens of the nation-state. In this way, the far right has sought to lay claim to notions of community while offering plausible-sounding solutions to economic and political challenges.
All of these factors – economic insecurity, a rejection of the political establishment, the scapegoating of immigrants and other marginalised groups, an emphasis on national sovereignty and control – were present in the Brexit debate and the 2016 US presidential campaign that brought Trump to power. Trump’s pledge to make America great again “played on the chauvinism” of a core support base and enabled him to pose “as the defender of the popular classes hit hard by deindustrialisation and the economic crisis”. He exploited the opportunity for regular TV appearances to present himself as the insurgent outsider, taking aim at the establishment and making outlandish, often explicitly racist and sexist claims. But another factor was disenchantment with the pace of political change under a Democratic administration, particularly among black and Hispanic Americans who chose not to vote, that played a role in Trump’s election success in 2016.
 OECD (2019). Negotiating Our Way Up: collective bargaining in a changing world of work. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/employment/negotiating-our-way-up-1fd2da34-en.htm
 OECD (2015). Income Inequality and Labour Income Share in G20 Countries. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/g20/topics/employment-and-social-policy/Income-ine…)
 Tweedy R (2017). “A mad world: capitalism and the rise of mental illness”. Red Pepper, 9 August 2017. Available at: https://www.redpepper.org.uk/a-mad-world-capitalism-and-the-rise-of-mental-illness/.
 TUC (2018). A Future that Works for Working People. Available at: https://www.tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/future-works-working-p…
Want to hear about our latest news and blogs?
Sign up now to get it straight to your inbox
To access the admin area, you will need to setup two-factor authentication (TFA).