Is UK bucking Europe’s trend of moving to the right?

<span>Nigel Farage’s Reform party got 14% share of UK votes, but due to the first past the post system won only five parliamentary seats.</span><span>Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Nigel Farage’s Reform party got 14% share of UK votes, but due to the first past the post system won only five parliamentary seats.Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Labour’s landslide victory was hailed as a beacon of hope for progressives worldwide after a surge in support for far-right parties in Europe, and with Donald Trump currently slight favourite to become the US president in January.

But Britain’s bulwark against the populist, extremist tide sweeping through European capitals may be as much practical as ideological. Nigel Farage’s rightwing Reform party got a 14% share of votes nationwide, not far behind the 16% claimed by Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in recent elections for the EU parliament.

AfD is now sending a significant bloc of MEPs to Brussels. By contrast under the UK’s first past the post system, which rewards only the winner in each constituency, more than 4m votes for Reform produced just five seats in parliament.

Reform’s small grouping will try to pressure the government and certainly influence the Conservative party as it reconstitutes its leadership in the wake of last week’s crushing defeat, but wield little real power.

“If the UK had a different [polling] system, we would be seeing a level of fragmentation similar to other places in Europe,” said Marta Lorimer, lecturer in politics at Cardiff University. “Some tendencies are just masked by the way the electoral system works.”

The nature of Britain’s voting system doesn’t only dent the political impact of votes cast for smaller parties – whether Reform or the Green party – it likely also deters some potential supporters from backing them in the first place.

In European elections, voters know that even a few legislators from a small party can form part of a coalition, giving them more incentive to choose with their hearts rather than their heads.

“Coming out of 14 years of Conservative government, if [British] voters were looking for change, they knew they had to choose between left and right,” Lorimer added.

Stefanie Walter, professor for international relations at the University of Zurich, said: “The relative success of smaller parties in the UK election – despite these structural constraints on them achieving power – are driven by the same political trends that are reshaping Europe.

“Even though there are such strong electoral incentives to vote for the two main parties in the UK, the vote is splintering more, and with more impact.”

She said: “This reflects a wider splintering we see across Europe, where the political spectrum used to be uni-dimensional, with parties lined up on the left and right. In the last 20 years a second dimension opened up, around nationalism and openness in particular, so there is more room to compete, more room for parties with different political profiles.”

This, however, does not only benefit populists or the right. The UK’s Green party and Liberal Democrats made significant gains on Thursday, and systems of proportional representation have also recently returned leftwing governments in Europe, even if the rise of the far right has been a focus of media attention and political concern. Spain’s socialists held on to power last year after a snap election gamble in the wake of damaging local polls, and in France a leftwing/Green alliance was projected to form a majority in Emmanuel Macron’s snap election, with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally consigned to third.

Farage has also been largely a single-issue campaigner, albeit one who has been extraordinarily successful in pushing for a Brexit referendum, said Prof Amelia Hadfield, founding director of the Centre for Britain and Europe.

He may draw inspiration from the success of populists in Europe, and has vowed to create a “mass national campaign” by the 2029 elections. But counterparts across the channel spent years expanding their appeal, accumulating experience in government and shaping broader policy platforms.

Hadfield said: “The question is, can Farage transfer some of the impetus from Brexit. He now needs to convert what is a leadership and individual driven construct. It will be a top down attempt by Farage to build it along the lines of more established populist parties.”

If the election result was not a straight-forward victory for progressives, or shift away from populist trends, the handover of power that followed on Friday morning was an unequivocal triumph for democracy.

Rishi Sunak, the outgoing Conservative prime minister, and Jeremy Hunt, the outgoing chancellor, acknowledged both Labour’s win and Starmer’s commitment to public service – despite their political differences on how best to serve. Starmer responded in kind.

Surging support for the far right has been accompanied in many places by assaults on the institutions of democracy. The 6 January attack on the US Capitol appears to have done little to dent Trump’s chances in November’s presidential election.

So these mutual, perhaps even choreographed, statements of respect for British democracy and the will of British voters are likely to have been welcomed in the bipartisan spirit in which they were made.

“A sense of cordiality has long been a part of British politics,” Hadfield said. “We have not seen it very much in evidence in recent years, and the British populace has a long memory and they resent the loss of civility.”