As with immigration, radical-right and social-democratic parties are unlikely to find common ground on social policy.
It is often said that the populist radical right has turned into a pro-welfare party family. This typically builds on the diagnosis that the anti-immigration platforms of populist-radical-right parties (PRRPs) have successfully mobilised growing shares of male blue-collar workers and, more generally, the ‘losers’ of the knowledge economy.
The prevailing narrative following from this observation is that PRRPs increasingly draw on a ‘traditional social democratic discourse’ with a pro-welfare programme against unfettered markets. Seen in this way, the populist radical right could be considered a parliamentary ally for social democracy when it comes to social policy, despite differences in party positions on more socio-cultural issues such as immigration and asylum.
The Danish experience is a case in point. In 2017, the leader of the Danish People’s Party (DF), Kristian Thulesen Dahl, and that of the Social Democratic Party, Mette Frederiksen, announced in a widely-noted interview intensified parliamentary co-operation, no longer ruling out a common coalition platform.
At first sight, this makes a lot of sense. While the Danish social democrats moved to the right on immigration and asylum, the Danish People’s Party supported the social democrats’ proposal in government to reinstate early-retirement arrangements. In a similar vein, the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) joined forces in heavily criticising the conservative-green government for restricting the generosity of early retirement for workers with long contribution records (Hacklerregelung).
Another instance is the social policy record of the Italian Lega, which in government pushed for the option to retire from age 62 with 38 years of contributions (Quota 100). Such examples resonate with earlier efforts by radical-right parties to defend the pension entitlements of workers with long contribution records when entering government.
It is no coincidence that early retirement should create such opportunities for parliamentary co-operation, given that this policy typically caters to (male) blue-collar workers—the only electoral constituency over which the centre left and the radical right compete. Skilled and routine workers in manufacturing are often in relatively protected full-time employment—often called ‘labour market insiders’—which ensures access to early-retirement arrangements by facilitating long and uninterrupted contribution records.
Our research on the social-policy preferences of radical-right voters however suggests that public pensions, and especially early retirement, may well represent the only area where the populist radical right and social democracy can arguably find common ground. If anything, the social-policy preferences of social-democratic and radical-right voters are, on all other issues, fundamentally opposed.
Interestingly, the preferences of PRRP supporters also differ from those of supporters of mainstream conservative or liberal parties. PRRPs appear to advocate an idiosyncratic approach to social policy—a ‘particularistic-authoritarian’ welfare state.
Drawing on a representative survey of public opinion on education and related social policies in eight western-European countries, in the context of the INVEDUC project at the University of Konstanz, our analysis reveals three things. First, PRRP supporters display medium support for social transfers dedicated to ‘deserving’ benefit recipients (the elderly). They are however significantly less likely to support other social-transfer programmes than supporters of mainstream left-wing parties, especially unemployment benefit and social assistance.
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Secondly, PRRP supporters are particularly fond of ‘workfare’ policies—activation demands which impose requirements on the unemployed to accept any job deemed suitable. Here again they strongly differ from the electoral constituencies of mainstream left-wing parties.
Finally, PRRP supporters are unique in their strong opposition to social-investment policies which invest in ‘human capital’—from early-childhood education via family policies and vocational training to active-labour-market policies in adulthood. Such policies are broadly supported by large majorities in European countries, but not by PRRP supporters.
Nativist and authoritarian
The important takeaway from our research is that although PRRPs increasingly attract voters who have lost out through economic ‘modernisation’, they do so with a nativist and authoritarian ideology which is difficult, if not impossible, to square with a redistributive pro-welfare orientation.
The particularistic-authoritarian welfare state emerges as a model from our analysis of the social-policy preferences of PRRP supporters. It defends the pension entitlements of labour-market insiders with long contribution records while cutting social rights for non-citizens, tightening the screws on the unemployed and the poor and opposing a progressive welfare recalibration that would cover the new social risks of non-standard workers—typically at the expense of women, the young and the low-skilled. It is particularistic due to its narrow conceptions of ‘deservingness’ and authoritarian in its punitive disposition to those out of work.
In short, social-democratic and radical-right parties are not only at odds on immigration. Even on social policy, there are more divides than commonalities.
Marius Busemeyer is a professor of political science at the University of Konstanz, focusing on comparative welfare-state research, political economy, welfare-state attitudes and inequality. Philip Rathgeb is an assistant professor of social policy at the University of Edinburgh, with a focus on welfare states, labour relations, party politics and social inequality.