The dark clouds of right-wing populism are gathering over Europe. In Norway, it has taken us a long time to recognise the threat but now the Progress Party (FrP), established in 1973, has become the country's leading opposition party with support reaching as high as 37 per cent, according to some polls in 2006. Its growth as the 'new labour party' is the most serious threat the Norwegian left has had to face since the 1940s.
The FrP is aiming for government power in 2009. Ten years ago nobody would have thought this possible. Members of the FrP were seen as crazy, established parties ignored them, journalists laughed at them. Nobody's laughing now.
For my book The FrP Code: The Secret Behind the Progress Party's Success (Manifest, 2007) I travelled around mainland Europe to investigate right-wing populism. I wanted to know why so many workers are voting for the harsh neoliberalism of parties like the FrP. Early in my travels, it became clear that this is an international phenomenon. A combination of xenophobia and aggressive rhetoric against the political elite has succeeded for Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France, Jörg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria, Gianfranco Fini's National Alliance in Italy, Belgium's Vlaams Belang, the Swiss People's Party, which is the country's biggest, and the Danish People's Party too.
Danish voters turn to the right
My first stop was Denmark. The government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen came to power in 2001, supported by the Danish People's Party, Denmark's counterpart to Norway's FrP. The 2001 election produced the most conservative parliament since the 1920s. The new right-wing majority's three parties (Venstre, Konservative and Dansk Folkeparti)increased their vote to 52 per cent from 40 per cent in 1998. And the biggest shift to the right occurred within the working class.
In 2001 many more workers voted for the right than the left. According to the Danish Valgprojektet (Election Project), 'Workers' support for socialist parties has fallen away ... There is a class-defined demobilisation ... an almost total loss of support for the workers' parties among the younger part of the working class ... especially among skilled workers.'
But class voting patterns do still exist: the Danish People's Party is in effect the new labour party. No other Danish party has such strong support from the working class. In 2001, 61 per cent of its voters were workers, nearly three times as many worker-voters as the Social Democrats. Two-thirds of workers in the private sector voted for the right. The new right-wing coalition was re-elected in February 2005 and again in November 2007.
There are clear parallels between what has happened in Denmark and the FrP's success with workers in Norway. As I travelled further south I found more of the same.
Earthquake in France
'Earthquake!' screamed the front page of the French newspaper Le Monde when the right-wing extremist, Jean-Marie Le Pen, beat the social democratic prime minister, Lionel Jospin, in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections. Everyone had thought Jospin and the conservative president, Jaques Chirac, would be fighting the second round. Instead it was Le Pen who was going forward. Political shockwaves hit Europe. Jospin resigned immediately.
Although Norway's right-wing populists would rather not admit it, the FrP and France's National Front have much in common. Both developed from minor protest parties for small businessmen into broad parties of discontent for many of the less privileged. The Front, like the FrP, has made use of many of the left's traditions. Right-wing populists have worked to build a social movement. They have conducted long-term ideological training and propaganda. For a while, the Front even had its own trade unions, among the police as well as others.
So who are their voters? The Front's electorate is divided. On one side are the bourgeois, highly paid and deeply conservative tax-haters; on the other, workers and the unemployed. Capitalism's new service workers, in particular, vote for the far right: drivers, subcontractors, temps and employees in small companies with no union organisation. Their work is precarious; they have little education and few prospects. Young men especially turn to the far right. 'The youth voting for the Front are the ones we don't see,' says political scientist Pascal Perrineau.
Le Pen won nearly five million votes in 2002 and the Front became the biggest working-class party in France. Where 12 per cent of France's working class voted for Jospin, 26 per cent voted for Le Pen. Though Nicolas Sarkozy has subsequently drawn away much of the right-wing vote, it was the same phenomenon we are now seeing in Norway and Denmark: radical, populist, right-wing forces gaining ground among the workers. Why?
Far-right identity politics
Talking to people who voted for the Norwegian populist right offers useful insights for anyone trying to fight radical right-wing populism elsewhere in Europe, particularly when it comes to what I call 'identity politics'.
How does the FrP make the worker-voter identify with a party that is positioned so far to the right? Hostility towards foreigners and mobilisation of 'white' or 'Norwegian' identity plays a big part. So does the male-
orientated FrP's anti- feminism, which mobilises identity among male voters.
The right-wing populists also play with a particular type of consumer identity that sets the population as consumer individuals against the state, the tax system and the elite. These are the obvious side of the FrP's identity politics.
There are two other elements that are less apparent but even more important to consider, both in Norway and in other countries where right-wing populism is on the rise.
First, the FrP's rhetoric offers its own worker-identity. This is not the worker as opposed to bosses and owners. It is the worker contrasted to the lazy and dole abusers 'below' and 'posh', cultured people 'above'.
It is quite normal for people to imagine society as if it were split into three different sections, with themselves in the middle. Moral values determine who is worthy, and who is unworthy, both 'up there', 'down below' and among 'proper working people'. The unworthy 'up there' include all those who represent the state, the Labour Party, the government and everybody else who 'lies and steals money from common workers', as Hans Erling Willersrud, the car worker who is the main character in The FrP Code, puts it.
Among people 'down there', the worthy are those who, through no fault of their own, have become ill, disabled or been made redundant. Everyone else is unworthy, including those who don't do their jobs properly. For many workers worthiness equals skills - you are worth something because you have skills and you do something. This way of measuring worth and dignity is an alternative to measuring by income or education. On this essentially moral scale, the 'honest worker' comes out on the same level as, or above, the rich person or the leading politician.
The unworthy also include the dishonest: those who turn with the wind, pay lip service to all, who are not 'solid wood', as Norwegians say. The worst are probably those who suck up to 'posh' people and intellectuals one moment, only to denounce them among workers the next. Not being perceived as 'solid wood' has created quite a few problems for politicians, especially for the Labour Party, which needs to present itself favourably to different groups at the same time.
From my interviews with working-class FrP voters, I made a simple model to show how those 'up there' and 'down there' stand in relation to the 'proper working people'. The elite 'up there' are divided into three different types: