Mary Dejevsky: The centre ground is shifting to the right

We have had three elections in which the far right was the greatest beneficiary
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The Independent Online

Common wisdom has it that the next British election, whenever it comes, will be fought on that touchy-feely, third-way turf otherwise known as the centre ground. Tony Blair's genius before the 1997 election was to understand that this was the future of British politics, and to "reposition" his reluctant party accordingly - just as David Cameron is "repositioning" his Conservatives to contest the same territory now. Could it be, though, that this is another example of generals planning for the battle they have just fought, rather than the real battle that lies ahead?

Consider recent elections elsewhere in Europe. On Sunday, the Belgian far-right made sweeping gains in local elections in Flanders. The big losers were the Liberal Democrats, the lead party in the country's governing coalition. Even in Antwerp, where it was beaten into second place by the Socialists, the far-right Vlaams Belang won more than a third of the vote. In French-speaking Wallonia, the Socialists suffered a drubbing by the centre right.

The preferred explanation was that this was an anti-incumbency vote of the sort that tends to happen in local elections that take place between national polls. In fact, though, it was more than this: rejection of the centrist status quo found its expression in a sharp turn to the right. Even where a right-ish local government was already in power, many voters decided it was not right enough. The "nice" explanation, that it was all about incumbency, however, has prevailed.

Something similar was said of the Swedish general election last month. Here, a four-party centre-right alliance ejected Sweden's Social Democrats for the first time since 1991, confounding the pollsters who had forecast a close result. And while the new coalition may find itself scuppered by the same problems of cohesion that dogged Sweden's last government of the right, it cannot be denied that on 17 September, Swedish voters turned decisively to the right.

Again, the "nice" explanation was preferred: Swedes were bored with the centre-left, fed up with high taxes and concerned that their country was in a rut. By moving his Moderate Party to the centre and modernising its creaking machine, the oh-so-plausible Fredrik Reinfeldt had reassured voters about the future of their social state and blotted out memories of their previous experience of the right in government. Their reasons for moving to the right were reported in a wholly positive light.

A less flattering truth about Europe's recent political direction emerges from the one election that seemed to buck the trend. Ten days ago, Austria's centre-right coalition had to settle for second place to the country's Social Democrats. This apparent turn to the left came as a crushing disappointment to Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, and surprised almost everyone else. But while Austria is now likely to be governed by a "grand" coalition of the two main parties, with the Social Democrats as senior partner, a breakdown of the popular vote tells a more complicated story.

In fact, Austria did not turn to the left, but to the right. The reason why Mr Schüssel is no longer Chancellor is that his centre-right government was not far enough right for many of its former supporters. The biggest winners, in percentage terms, were the two parties of the far right, formed after Jörg Haider's Austrian Freedom Party split. Both reached the threshold for representation in parliament, and the votes they took from the centre-right had the effect of propelling the centre-left into power.

Here we have three elections with superficially different outcomes, which nonetheless have a common element: the parties of the far right were proportionately the greatest beneficiaries. And - lest there be any confusion - their electoral appeal resided in one thing: hostility to immigration. This was true even in Sweden, where the misleadingly named Sweden Democrats registered the largest percentage increase of any minor party.

The consolation is that the far right remain on the fringe and Europe's democratic systems are so far able to cope with them. The combined message, however, is disturbing. It is that the issues clustered around immigration, Islam and cultural difference are issues on which people are voting, even if they hide their intentions from the pollsters. And they are issues that command an increasing number of votes in the liberal Nordic and Benelux countries, as in countries such as Austria, with a certain history.

Here, too, as the furore about the veil shows, these issues are resonating more loudly. By hewing with such determination to the present centre ground, Mr Cameron may be missing the evidence from Europe that shows the political centre is moving.