Discovering the missing link between precariousness and the populist vote

Over the past decade, economist Guy Standing has written about the emergence of a new class of citizens – the “precariat” – who lack economic security and stable professional identities. But can the concept of precariousness also help explain the success of populist parties? Based on a new study, Lorenza Antonucci, Carlo D’Ippoliti, Laszlo Horvath and André Krouwel assess how precariousness affects support for populist parties in France and the Netherlands.

Since 2016, scholars have been discussing the economic and cultural origins of the rise of populist and radical voting in Europe – the so-called “Brexit effect”. A popular idea in this debate has been the suggestion that labor market insecurity generates support for anti-system policies.

However, labor market insecurity has been operationalized in a limited way, often looking at specific types of contracts (short-term/part-time) and not including multidimensional measures of insecurity. To advance the debate, we transpose the sociological notion of precariousness popularized by Guy Standing to the populist vote. This allows us to broaden our understanding of populist voters beyond the ‘left behind’ to capture the precarious ‘inner circle’ who face deteriorating working and living conditions.

Our team has been working since 2016 to create a multidimensional understanding of precariousness in voting research. Our contribution is both theoretical and empirical: we wanted to translate a sociological concept into political voting by creating new survey measures of precariousness, identify different potential dimensions within the broad definition of precariousness and test whether precariousness can explain the vote. We carried out a first test of our precariousness indicators in France and the Netherlands during their national elections in 2017.

Our results show a positive association between electoral support for radical right-wing and left-wing populist parties and precariousness in both countries – as well as a negative association between precariousness and voting for traditional parties (Christian Democrats and social parties). -Democrats). Our work also highlights that an unknown aspect of precariousness is particularly relevant in explaining voting: the subjective insecurity of working conditions (precariousness at work). Before turning to the results, it is worth discussing how we expanded the measure of voting insecurity.

Creating “elements of precariousness” in political research

The first step was to construct an overall measure of precariousness that fully reflects the multidimensionality of this concept. In addition to survey questions measuring the perceived likelihood of being fired, we introduce new measures of job insecurity from the job quality literature that have not previously been used in relation to voting. You can find more information on the origins of these dimensions in our companion document, which is freely available. These are able to capture new elements of precariousness such as autonomy at work, satisfaction with career advancement, work-life balance and cognitive job insecurity, among others.

It is essential to include this multidimensional understanding of precariousness: the literature on the sociology of work shows that, especially after the euro crisis, the quality of work is the most diffuse issue in European labor markets, even beyond the spread of job insecurity (ie the spread of temporary contracts), which still affects a relative minority of workers. By including more items, we were able to explore the insecurity experienced by individuals generally assumed to be safe (the so-called insiders of the labor market), thereby broadening our understanding of populist voting by the “losers” of globalization.

Thanks to an exploratory factor analysis, we extracted two main factors that denote the two distinct dimensions of precariousness: a dimension called “precariousness at work” grouping together items on subjective insecurity in working conditions; and a dimension that we have identified as “precariousness of occupation” because it includes elements measuring insecurity in the occupation of work. Table 1 contains a list of elements and the two dimensions.

Table 1: Items for each dimension of precariousness

Why would precariousness be associated with the populist vote? Based on the previous work of Noam Gidron and Peter A. Hall, we hypothesize that two types of mechanisms are at the origin of this dynamic. An instrumental mechanism for voters to withdraw from parties that have supported flexible labor market policies (Christian Democrats and Social Democrats) and rally to support radical populist right-wing parties and radical left-wing parties. Radical populist right-wing parties have adopted a political agenda of nativist welfare statism that speaks directly to voter job insecurity, while radical left-wing parties propose tackling insecurity through changes that reverse the trend towards ‘flexibilization’ that has occurred in previous decades.

However, we do not presuppose that this process is purely the product of fully rational decision-making by voters: as Gidron and Hall point out, there is also a symbolic process that moves voters towards contestatory options in the presence of an insecurity.

The association between precariousness and voting for the populist right and the radical left

The data collection was conducted shortly before and during the legislative elections held in the Netherlands and France, consisting of 31,800 and 6,992 observations. Our results show a relationship between precariousness and voting for radical parties, but the effect varies between the two countries and depends on the specific dimension of precariousness (incumbent or precarious at work) and the type of radical support (populist right radical or radical left).

First, in both countries, precariousness is associated with voting for radical populist parties (the National Front in France and Partij voor de Vrijheid in the Netherlands) and radical left parties (such as France rebellious in France and the Socialist Party in the Nederlands). Our results also show that voting for the two establishment parties (center-right and center-left) is negatively associated with precariousness in France as in the Netherlands; the same negative effect is true for the new arrival in France, The Republic on the Move, which aligns with a flexible program for the labor market.

Figure 1: Estimated marginal impact of job insecurity and tenure insecurity on the likelihood of voting for radical populist right-wing parties in France and the Netherlands

To note: For more information, see the authors’ accompanying article in Sociological Research Online.

Second, by analyzing the results by type of precariousness and by type of radical support, precariousness at work has effects on the chances of voting for both the radical populist right (Figure 1) and the radical left (Figure 2). In both countries, the odds increase by a factor of two to three.

Precarious tenure increases the chances of voting for the radical right in particular. This effect is particularly pronounced in France, where tenure insecurity multiplies the likelihood of voting for the radical right by 7.5. We interpret the higher relative importance of job precariousness compared to job precariousness in the explanation of the vote in both countries as an indication that job quality problems are widespread in both countries.

Figure 2: Estimated marginal impact of job insecurity and tenure insecurity on the probability of voting for radical left parties in France and the Netherlands

To note: For more information, see the authors’ accompanying article in Sociological Research Online.

These results reveal that the political trend towards flexibilization – and the related decline in the quality of work experienced by workers in France and the Netherlands – has political effects. In our framework, radical populist right-wing parties and radical left-wing parties are able to attract the growing subjective insecurity experienced by voters indirectly (presenting themselves as anti-establishment) or directly through their agendas – parties radical left-wing parties offering an anti-austerity solution to labor market insecurity and radical populist right-wing parties proposing a chauvinistic form of labor market protection for citizens.

Although temporary contracts may still affect a minority of workers, insecurity of working conditions is a major problem in European labor markets. This means that precarious working conditions could also potentially explain the populist vote in other European countries. Future comparative studies on a European scale could clarify this enigma.

For more information, see the authors’ companion document in Online sociological research


Note: This article gives the point of view of the authors, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Benjamin Davies on Unsplash


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