Probably the most striking shift in the fortunes of British political parties recently has been the rise in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which now matches the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls. UKIP also did well at the last set of parliamentary by-elections and should perform strongly at next year’s elections for the European Parliament. That said, UKIP has come nowhere near winning a by-election, as the Social Democrats and the Social Democrat/Liberal Alliance repeatedly did in the 1980s, enabling the Liberal Democrats, their successors, to break through to become a major political player. As for the European elections, which the British electorate traditionally uses to give the government of the day a good kicking, they are a notoriously poor indicator of a party’s likely performance at the next general election; one can in any case question the value to UKIP of success in elections to a parliament that it openly despises.
The key to success for UKIP and all other English-based parties is to win seats at Westminster, and there UKIP has so far failed and looks like continuing to fail, as it did at the general election of 2010. When Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP and its only high-profile candidate, stood against the Speaker of the House of Commons in 2010, he was easily defeated, even though the Speaker by convention does not campaign and might therefore be seen as the softest of targets. And that defeat occurred soon after UKIP’s strong showing at the European elections of 2009, when it scored 16.5 per cent of the vote, coming ahead of Labour and second only to the Conservatives.
UKIP shows every sign of becoming the party of protest, the ‘third party’ that picks up votes from those who are dissatisfied with the governing party of the day but cannot bring themselves to vote for the main opposition party. The Liberal Democrats learnt to play that role skilfully, presenting themselves as a centre party attractive to disillusioned voters from both Tory and Labour camps. The Social Democrat/Liberal Alliance took off in the 1980s, when the gulf between the right-wing policies of the Thatcher government and the left-wing course of the Labour Party under Michael Foot opened up an inviting gap in the centre of British politics that a third party could exploit. But since 2010 the Liberal Democrats have been in government themselves and can no longer appeal to those voters who would wish a plague on both the government and the Labour opposition.
UKIP has undoubtedly benefitted from the unpopularity of the present government, especially as Labour, the principal opposition party, has yet to rebuild its appeal to uncommitted voters after its defeat in 2010. But UKIP is plainly a party of the right, standing to the right of the Conservatives on key issues like immigration and education. An analysis of election results from Germany and Austria since 1945 demonstrates that a third party of the centre is better placed to gain parliamentary representation and political power than one from the right of the political spectrum. (Or indeed from the left: who remembers the success of the British Green Party at the European parliamentary elections of 1989, when it secured 15 per cent of the vote, far ahead of the Social and Liberal Democrats?) It is important to differentiate between right-leaning ‘third parties’ like UKIP and parties of the far right, like the Front National in France, Golden Dawn in Greece or the BNP in Britain. The latter are parties that are effectively excluded from government as they are not considered potential coalition partners by the democratic parties of both right and left.
In Germany, one of the abiding features of politics has been the presence of a centrist, liberal third party, the Free Democrats (FDP), in almost all the governments that have ruled West Germany since 1949 and the united Germany since 1990. This is largely due to Germany’s system of proportional representation, which has ensured that no party has gained a majority of seats in parliament and been able to govern without coalition partners, with the sole exception of the period 1957-61, when Konrad Adenauer’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, held an overall majority. This has given the FDP a crucial role in balancing between the two main parties, the CDU/CSU on the right and the Social Democrats (SPD) on the left. In 1969, when the FDP agreed to form a coalition with the SPD, the CDU/CSU had to relinquish its position as a governing party for the first time in the history of West Germany; conversely, when the FDP split with the SPD in 1982, it formed part of a new coalition with the CDU/CSU, as junior partner in Helmut Kohl’s government.
Only rarely have there been coalitions that have excluded the FDP. The prime examples are the periods 1966-69 and 2005-09 when a Grand Coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD held power. These were by their very nature temporary governments that ended at the next general election, as soon as one of the two big parties could form a coalition with the FDP, as Willy Brandt’s SPD did in 1969 and as Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU did in 2009. The great exception in German politics was the period 1998-2005, when Gerhard Schröder led a governing coalition of the SPD and the Greens, a purely left-wing government. But that government was hardly a model of socialist radicalism since its major achievement was arguably the institution of measures to reform the German economy, the Hartz reforms that contributed so notably to the renewal of German economic competitiveness.
In Germany, the parties that stand to the right of the CDU/CSU have been excluded from government. The NPD, in particular, often seen as neo-Nazi in sympathy, has been kept at the margin of German politics. The same is true of the left, if one counts Joschka Fischer’s Greens as moderates on the basis of their performance in government in 1998-2005. The great success among the German third parties has unquestionably been the FDP, operating from the centre and able to switch between potential coalition parties to its right or to its left.
In Austria, however, the course of politics since 1945 has differed from that in Germany in two important respects. Firstly, the two main parties, the Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP) on the right and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ) on the left, drew on almost equal shares of electoral support in the early post-war decades. To avoid the ruinous conflict between their predecessors that had so disastrously destabilised Austria in the interwar period, the two governed together from 1947 until 1966 (and for periods subsequently) in a coalition that extended throughout Austrian public life, in a system known as the Proporz. The spoils of power were shared between the two major parties and ‘third parties’ were squeezed out. Secondly, however, the very closeness of the electoral battle between the ÖVP and the SPÖ, as it developed from the late 1940s, compelled both parties to compete for the votes of uncommitted voters, many of whom were not moderates or liberals but people suspected of pro-Nazi sympathies who had initially voted for the so-called ‘Independents’, the Verband der Unabhängigen.
Consequently, the ‘third parties’ that have influenced the government of Austria have often had a troubling component from the far right. The Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ), founded in 1956, was twice led by ex-SS men, most notably Friedrich Peter, party chairman from 1958-78. The Social Democrat Bruno Kreisky, the outstanding chancellor of post-war Austria and a Jew, notoriously developed friendly relations with Peter and the FPÖ, which supported Kreisky when he headed a minority government after the SPÖ’s success at the polls in 1970. With the election of a genuine liberal, Norbert Steger, as party chairman in 1980, the FPÖ seemed to be rejecting its right-wing past and to be transforming itself into a centrist ‘third party’.
But that process was put sharply into reverse when Steger was replaced in 1986 by Jörg Haider, who steered the party back onto a right-wing course. Haider was a charismatic figure whose appeal extended well beyond the traditional support base of the far right. He was that exceptional figure, the leader of a ‘third party’ from the right who led it to electoral success, albeit briefly. After his party’s spectacular success in the elections of 1999, it entered government alongside Wolfgang Schüssel’s ÖVP. But at the elections of 2002 the FPÖ lost almost two thirds of its vote and in 2005 it split, with Haider forming his own party, the BZÖ (Alliance for the Future of Austria); the BZÖ left government following its electoral defeat in 2006. Haider’s death in 2008 deprived the BZÖ of its principal electoral asset, condemning it to long-term decline, while the FPÖ, under Heinz-Christian Strache, remains too extreme to be a potential partner in a coalition government. All in all, a story that offers little hope to ‘third parties’ from the right.