The racist voters of Europe cannot be ignored, but nor should they be appeased

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The Independent Online

A conventional wisdom about the success of the xenophobic right in French and Dutch elections – and to a lesser extent the local elections in northern England – is already well established. The mainstream parties have failed to look as if they care about the issues that matter to ordinary people, the wisdom runs, and as a result the voters are turning to the parties of the extremes. This is a dangerous view. It comes too close for comfort to saying that respectable politicians ought to respond to popular support for racism by being just a bit racist themselves.

A conventional wisdom about the success of the xenophobic right in French and Dutch elections – and to a lesser extent the local elections in northern England – is already well established. The mainstream parties have failed to look as if they care about the issues that matter to ordinary people, the wisdom runs, and as a result the voters are turning to the parties of the extremes. This is a dangerous view. It comes too close for comfort to saying that respectable politicians ought to respond to popular support for racism by being just a bit racist themselves.

That was the strategy pursued by Margaret Thatcher as Leader of the Opposition in her famous interview in 1978, saying she understood the fears of some people in Britain that they might be "swamped by people with a different culture". It undoubtedly helped to neutralise the electoral threat from the National Front – but at an unacceptable price. Politicians have a responsibility to challenge prejudice. Faced with popular racism, their duty is to explain why its assumptions are mistaken, not to empathise with them.

There are other ways of avoiding this conclusion. One is to ask whether Pim Fortuyn's party is really racist, or even "far right". This is a diversion. The late Mr Fortuyn's views were not as coarse as those of Jean-Marie Le Pen; on many issues the openly gay professor was only at the libertarian end of liberalism; and the List Pim Fortuyn candidates are a mixed bunch of eccentrics of various stripes.

However, there was one distinctive theme of Mr Fortuyn's posthumous success, and that was his hostility to non-white immigration. That cannot be dressed up as anything other than racist. People voted for his party because they think there are too many non-white foreigners in the Netherlands. They blame them for crime and for their own relative failure to share in the country's great prosperity.

Then there is another way of dodging the duty to confront racism, which is to make too much of the arithmetic coincidence of the List Pim Fortuyn's share of the vote with Mr Le Pen's, both around 17 per cent. Some might argue that the racist vote has a "natural ceiling", that this is simply a protest vote in dull times which is given more leverage than it deserves by electoral systems different from ours. But the rise in support for anti-immigrant parties across Europe – in Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Norway – should not be ignored any more than it should be appeased.

This is a moment for leadership, for doing and saying the right thing regardless of the electoral consequences. Political leaders across Europe must of course act against crime, and they need to ensure that the housing of asylum seekers, for example, does not actually disadvantage people who are already relatively deprived. But they also have a duty to explain that non-whites are, throughout Europe, disproportionately the victims of crime; that immigration contributes to the dynamism and prosperity of successful economies; and that open and tolerant societies are richer in more ways than the simply material.

Those who seek to downplay or rationalise away the anti-immigrant vote in Europe are, however, right in one respect. There does seem to be a new level of alienation from "politics as usual", not just in the Netherlands, but in many other rich and stable democracies. The profession of politics has never been held in high regard, but, as Philip Gould, the Prime Minister's opinion pollster, observed this week, "there has been a revolution in scepticism – confidence in established institutions is melting away".

Perhaps part of the answer to that would be for our leaders, instead of putting on their serious faces to talk in Platitudinese of "working together to defeat this poisonous ideology" (as nearly everyone did yesterday), to explain why racism is both morally wrong and against our collective interests. As Mr Gould also said: "No political leader can look at the world and simply concede to it."

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