To beat Bannon’s far-right project, the left must embrace internationalism, writes Sam Bright
The British far-right is back – at least as a subject of political conversations. To many, the release of Tommy Robinson from prison and Boris Johnson’s bigoted barb about the niqab indicate that the far-right is now a renewed political threat.
This idea is obviously an appealing one – invoking the pitch battles against fascists in East London in the 1970s and 1980s. However, it fails to recognise that the resurgence of the far-right in Britain, evident since Ukip won the 2014 European Parliament election, stems from problems that transcend our borders.
Indeed, we are not suffering a far-right revival in isolation. Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, is an anti-asylum populist who says that his country should ignore distress calls from refugee boats. Hungary is governed by an autocrat, Viktor Orbán, who has systematically repressed dissenting voices in the media and judiciary. The story in Poland is similar, with the governing Law and Justice party having given ministers more power to appoint judges – neutering their independence. Meanwhile, in France, Germany and Sweden, renascent right-wing populist parties are threatening to win formal power in the near future.
In comparison, the distant and vaguely ridiculous threat of Jacob Rees-Mogg becoming prime minister seems like a trivial concern. In effect, there is a far-right inferno burning across Europe, and attempting to stamp out the flames in Britain will not stop the blaze.
In fact, Europe’s far-right parties are now beginning to recognise the continent-wide causes of their success and are pooling their expertise – assisted by the architect of Trumpism, Steve Bannon.
This summer, the day before Britain welcomed a giant inflatable baby Trump to the streets of London, Bannon summoned some Europe’s most divisive nationalist politicians to a five star hotel in Mayfair. This group, Bannon’s suicide squad, featured among others Nigel Farage and Louis Aliot – the latter a right-wing French politician and boyfriend of Marine Le Pen.
Not long after the meeting, Bannon went on record to a reporter at the Daily Beast to announce his new Europe-based foundation, called The Movement. He describes The Movement as a right-wing, nationalist version of the liberal Open Society Foundations, established by billionaire George Soros. Bannon’s foundation is expected to be headquartered in Brussels, acting as a lynchpin for right-wing populists across Europe – sharing knowledge on message discipline, field operations and data-led targeting.
Bannon believes that insurgent populist parties across Europe have been limited by their undisciplined (often chaotic) operations. They have fallen short of widespread electoral success not because their views are unpopular, but because they are in many ways incompetent.
For liberal politicians interested in the preservation of tolerant, open democracies, this should be a concern. Even despite their amateurish, haphazard approach to politics, populists across Europe have upended the establishment. If Bannon can turn his suicide squad into a band of wily, well-oiled political operators, they might pose an existential threat to liberal values, and the European Union.
The evidence shows that this task is not beyond Bannon. Devil’s Bargain, a book by Bloomberg reporter Joshua Green, tracks Bannon’s influence on the 2016 election – depicting the former White House chief strategist as an unparalleled political operator. Despite his unkempt appearance and loudmouth persona, Bannon devised a sophisticated system to influence the media, guided by an underlying philosophy: ‘anchor left, pivot right’. Bannon’s strategy involved using a thinktank report to seed a story in a left-leaning publication – preferably the New York Times. Then, when the story was published, Bannon would use Breitbart and alt-right forums like 4chan to amplify anti-Clinton sentiments – creating a media loop that reached both Democrats and Republicans.
The Clintons had repelled political attacks for decades, but Bannon was a different adversary altogether. Talking about Bannon and his ilk, former White House staffer Chris Lehane was forced to admit that, ‘they’ve adapted into a higher species.’
Bannon has recognised that cross-border collaboration can ensure a second-wave of success for the far-right in Europe. And liberal politicians must similarly recognise that cross-border collaboration is the only way to counter it.
This must primarily involve maintaining the closest possible relationship with the EU after Brexit – arguing that a no-deal departure would cut us off economically and strategically from our liberal democratic allies. After this, it will be crucial to work purposefully with the EU on immigration, migration, local democracy and economic redevelopment.
Even if we cannot lead the process, we must help the EU, as a partner and neighbour, to better promote social cohesion and cultural understanding – helping to refute bogus, sensationalist theories about the terminal decline of traditional values.
Likewise, we must work with the EU to develop growth programmes that provide new wealth and opportunities to parts of Europe that have been left behind over recent decades – including neglected communities in Britain.
Finally, our collective liberal democratic impulses must be used to close the democratic deficit faced by many regions across Europe. We must devolve more power to local administrations – encouraging people to engage with the democratic process and in turn helping to stop the feeling that their lives are controlled by distant elites.
Bannon is standing at the border of Europe, ready to unleash a new wave of populism on the continent. The success of the far-right in Britain is dependent on Europe’s response. For Brits on the left who want to fight the fash, your only option is to embrace internationalism.
Sam Bright is an associate at Progress. He tweets @SamBright_Ltd
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.