This year looks set to be another vintage year for political anoraks. With major elections in the United States, the United Kingdom and in Europe, it will offer a unique opportunity to take the pulse of what voters are thinking and feeling across the West. And if there is one key message which I think the elections will deliver, it is this: the populist rebellions that erupted on the scene nearly a decade ago, in 2016, are far from over.
Across Europe, we enter 2024 with national populists again on the march. In both opinion polls and elections, the likes of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, Giorgia Meloni in Italy, the Sweden Democrats, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), the Austrian Freedom Party, Vox in Spain and Chega in Portugal have all enjoyed impressive returns, leveraging a growing frustration and disillusionment among voters over the toxic cocktail of inflation; a severe cost-of-living crisis; ongoing migration and refugee flows from Africa, the Middle East and beyond; and continued Islamist terrorist atrocities, which appear to once again be on the rise amid the Israel-Gaza conflict.
The ‘four Ds’ of populism
As I predicted in my book National Populism, published in 2018 against the backdrop of the votes for Brexit and Donald Trump, these parties have remained a serious political force by tapping into the ‘four Ds’: strong public distrust of established institutions, including not just the old parties but also media, creative institutions and the expert class; parallel fears over the perceived destruction of national identities, cultures and ways of life due to ongoing immigration and rapid demographic change; concerns over relative deprivation, namely the extent to which many working-class voters and non-graduates now, often rightly, sense they are being left behind relative to their middle-class and university-educated counterparts; and, lastly, ongoing political ‘dealignment’, whereby the old bonds which used to tie voters and politicians together are now rapidly coming undone, making it much easier for insurgents such as Wilders, whose right-wing populist PVV party became the largest in the Dutch house of representatives late last year.
All four of these currents will almost certainly help national populists make considerable gains in the European Parliament in 2024 and use this influence to push for more restrictive immigration and asylum policies. But it won’t only be in Europe where we are likely to see shocks that will remind us of the turbulence of 2016. In the US, too, the polls suggest that Donald Trump has a decent chance to dislodge Joe Biden in the presidential election.
Despite Trump’s legal issues and cases, in late 2023 some national polls put him ahead of Biden. In some key swing states he has comfortable leads. Were Trump to find himself re-elected, it would be further evidence that what remains of the established political class has, so far, failed to grasp the lessons of 2016.
Rise of the renegade Reform party
In Britain, too, while the Tories look set to suffer a heavy and perhaps historic defeat, it is also not hard to see the lingering appeal of populism. Unresolved public concerns over legal and illegal migration look set to push many of Boris Johnson’s voters from 2019 either into apathy, or instead to switch to the renegade Reform party, which in late 2023 was averaging 10 per cent in the polls, recruiting around one in eight of the people who voted for Johnson four years earlier.
Such support would almost certainly be a final nail in the coffin for Rishi Sunak and the Tories, plunging them into an ideological civil war over the soul of British conservatism. Should the Tories revert to a David Cameron-style liberal conservatism? Or should they reinvent themselves to follow the US Republicans into a more interventionist and far more culturally conservative ‘national conservatism’? Should they continue to try to appeal to more working-class areas or give up on that post-Brexit realignment and refocus on more prosperous ‘Blue Wall’ areas in southern England? These are the questions that will shape the outcome of that internal civil war.
One person who will also undoubtedly have an impact on this debate and the future of British politics will be the Reform party’s honorary president, Nigel Farage, who in 2024 might be tempted to return to frontline politics. Farage, the former leader of the Brexit Party, spent the close of 2023 in the jungle on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! Should he decide to throw his hat back into the ring, we could yet end up seeing not just more turbulence but, potentially, the wider reconfiguration of the right wing in British politics.
Either way, looking ahead to the turbulence of 2024, and the potential shocks that might yet arrive, there is a sentiment that I suspect many readers might share: Just Get Me Out of Here…
Matthew Goodwin is professor of political science at the University of Kent. He tweets @GoodwinMJ