While much of Europe embraces hard-right parties, the UK has swung wildly to the left. Here’s why

Supporters wave the national flag of France during a campaign meeting of France’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party’s President and lead European Parliament election candidate Jordan Bardella and President of the French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) parliamentary group Marine Le Pen, ahead of the upcoming European Union (EU) parliamentary elections, in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, on May 24, 2024. 

Francois Lo Presti | Afp | Getty Images

LONDON — A somewhat strange and ironic political shift has gripped Europe over the last few years.

In the formerly Brexiting, euroskeptic U.K., the pendulum has just swung back to the center-left Labour Party, which comes to power after a mammoth election win, ending 14 years of Conservative Party rule.

A different picture is playing out in much of western Europe — and in countries that disdained Brexit and the U.K.’s populist trend in recent years over the last decade or so. These states are now seeing their own electorates shift to the right, with nationalist, populist and euroskeptic parties riding high in voter polls and entering the corridors of power.

While the U.K. and mainland Europe are heading in different directions politically, analysts say that the driving force behind changing patterns at the polls is fundamentally the same: voters are desperate for change.

“There’s an anti-incumbency mood again in Europe,” Dan Stevens, professor of politics at Exeter University, told CNBC. No matter who the incumbent is, Stevens said, “there’s just a general dissatisfaction and want for change.”

Tapping into the zeitgeist among British voters, the U.K.’s Labour Party used “change” as its rallying cry for voters ahead of Thursday’s general election, which it won with a landslide.

The shift to the left comes after a tumultuous period in British politics during the last series of Conservative governments, with immigration concerns and euroskepticism culminating in the 2016 referendum to leave the EU. More challenges followed throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine and a cost-of-living crisis. By the time the British election was called, Brits were just fed up, analysts said.

Shared concerns

The U.K. is not alone in looking for a political change of scenery. A similar shift has been observed in much of western and eastern Europe in recent years, with hard-right populist and nationalist parties upsetting and unseating the old political establishment.

Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and France have all seen far-right parties — such as Fratelli d’Italia, the Party for Freedom, Alternative for Germany or National Rally — rise up in opinion polls or win elections.

UK PM Rishi Sunak concedes defeat

Such parties often emerged as protest factions, standing on an anti-immigration or euroskeptic platform, but they’ve since taken a more mainstream approach to attract a wider section of the electorate, who are concerned over broader universal issues such as jobs, education, healthcare, national identity and the economy.

The latter issue is a particular driver of voting change, with rising food and energy costs and declining disposable household incomes having the most direct and decisive impact on voters.

“If you have very poor economic performance, then you would expect the political pendulum to swing, and when it swings it, it goes to the other side from where it is at present … It is swinging because people are hard up and aggravated. It’s as simple as that,” Christopher Granville, managing director of EMEA and global politics at TS Lombard, told CNBC, signaling that the turn of tide has not favored incumbent leaderships.

“Of course, there’s a huge debate about the extent to which the respective governments are responsible for this poor economic performance … You can argue that they’ve been disastrously incompetent or you can argue that they’ve been innocent victims of external shocks, such as the energy crisis provoked by the war in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis etc,” Granville added.

“Wherever you stand on that debate, the reality is the same, that the voters wants to swing the pendulum.”

Protest vote

Many political experts pin the rise of the hard right in Europe on voters wanting to protest against the political status quo and its often long-standing establishment figures and parties.

“Right wing and hard-right parties are not only winning because of immigration, yes, that’s their signature topic but they have been able to win because they attract a coalition of voters voting for them for different reasons,” Sofia Vasilopoulou, professor of European politics at King’s College London, told CNBC.

“They have a number of groups who are what I call ‘peripheral’ voters who tend to vote with them because of a lack of trust in politics, lack of trust in institutions, fatigue with the status quo,” she said. “It’s a kind of a protest against politics in general, and there’s quite a lot of voters that they get because of that.”

Political analysts point out that, although far-right political parties in France, Germany and Italy made gains in the recent European Parliament elections, they also did not perform quite as well as expected.

Far right makes strong gains in EU elections as center holds majority

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