The best weapon against the far right? Empathy

Politicians need to be attentive to those who find themselves on a downward financial escalator. Otherwise, extremists are more than ready to lend an ear
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We call it the squeeze on living standards as prices rise faster than wages. This has been going on for nearly four years. In France, the same phenomenon is described more emotionally. There, hard-pressed people speak of the experience as being on a “down escalator”.

This phrase captures more than just a shortage of money; it adds a sense of descending the social scale. While previous generations may have steadily acquired a higher standard of living and the satisfaction that goes with it, now these gains are being reversed. Some 90 per cent of French people think that their children will be worse off financially than their parents when they grow up. The British have the same fear and it extends right across austerity Europe.

It is lonely on the down escalator. The traditional political parties, of the left and the right, seem to have little understanding of what people are going through. Understanding? No, strike out that word, it is empathy that politicians often lack. The political class does not feel others’ anguish. And so, disappointed, the hard-pressed turn instead to the parties of the far right.

This is what has happened in Britain, with Ukip higher than it was in the opinion polls. In France, the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen is gaining ground to such an extent that the traditional parties have begun to panic. In the Austrian general election last Sunday, there was a surge in support for the Eurosceptic right-wing Freedom Party, which got 21.4 per cent of the votes cast. In Greece the far-right party, Golden Dawn, obtained seven per cent of the popular vote in the 2012 election.

But it is important to be careful here. People holding bigoted views (as in Greece) may lead these parties, but their new members don’t necessarily share them. In these pages two weeks ago, Tim Lott wrote a perceptive piece describing the attitudes of the British working class (WC) so misunderstood by the liberal middle class. He wrote that “In the WC formulation, people who have a history in this country, particularly of working-class struggle, have a greater right to the benefits of the state than immigrants and incomers… This is not racism – it is a belief no different, I imagine, to that of the average Muslim or Sikh – that the in-group, the culture to which you belong, is to be preferred above those rights of non-members of the group. This is communitarianism.”

A French specialist in public opinion put this in a different way in Le Monde the other day. Alain Mergier asked why did working-class people turn to the right?  “Not because the Front National is xenophobic, racist, anti-Semitic (which it is less than it was) but because its statements are a mirror in which struggling people recognise their social experience – the fragility of social ties, increased vulnerability and the uncertainties immediately ahead. They criticise the traditional parties  for being deaf to the destruction of their  daily life.”

But while some leaders of the far-right parties may keep any bigoted beliefs they hold, if they do, well hidden from public view their close lieutenants frequently let them down and adverse publicity is the consequence.

In Greece, while the pattern is the same, the situation is incomparably more serious. In Athens on 17 September, a rapper, Pavloss Fyssas, was set upon and killed by supporters of Golden Dawn. This might have been another brutal murder quickly forgotten, but this one wasn’t. Mr Fyass became a martyr. A political commentator wrote : “Until then we had managed to be civilised about the  differences between left and right… With  Fyass’s assassination, that line was crossed.”

Unexpectedly the Greek government took its chance. Learning from the way the military in Egypt recently moved against the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of the deposed Prime Minister, Mohamed Morsi, it arrested 22 senior members of Golden Dawn last week and issued warrants for a further 10 people. Four of the party’s MPs were in court yesterday to answer charges of criminal activity, including murder, assault and money-laundering.

These sorts of actions, well-justified as they may be, are not, however, going to halt the growing popularity of the far right. Forgive me if I quote from another French political scientist, Pierre Rosanvallon. In a recent book, he wrote that studies have shown that citizens are at least as sensitive to the behaviour of the people in government as to the precise nature of the decisions they make. “We find a new insistence on attentiveness, openness, fairness, compassion, recognition, respect and presence… Survey after survey has shown that a central concern of  people everywhere is that political leaders should share their experiences.”

The key word here is attentiveness – to the many who earn less than the median wage, to those on the downward escalator. Showing empathy for their plight would do more to stop the drift to the far right than any arrests in the night or the striking of chauvinistic attitudes by mainstream politicians. Fortunately for us, Labour understands this need and the Coalition is  following suit. Mr Farage’s moment is passing.