Jeff recently wrote about the Swedish experience with the so-called rise of the far right, when the media made it look like boyish Jimmie Akesson’s party won outright. Yesterday these anti-foreigner parties met each other in Austria to pontificate primarily about the “Islamisation” of Europe (for instance, 4.2% of Austrians are Muslims). It’s not just a one-off meeting: they sit together in the European Parliament as the “Alliance of European Nationalist Movements”. Curiously, foreigners who hate the foreigners who come to their countries are OK.

The extent of their rise can be debated. In Sweden, just just one voter in 18 backed them, and if they’ve “risen”, the Greens and others “rose” further. In Scotland, they got less than the pensioners, the Tommy-fragment of the SSP, and one of the two evangelical parties. Even their 2009 Euro success was on a reduced vote but with a lower turnout overall, effectively driven by the abstention of former Labour voters.

Nevertheless, how should the non-fascist majority respond to these parties, before, during and after elections? In general should we boycott them, confront them, ignore them, or even try to reach out specifically to their voters?

The day after the Swedish elections, the Guardian contained another of those regular broadsides against the complacent liberal elites who ignored the Sweden Democrats under the seductive headline “We should have argued Sweden Democrats to oblivion”. When you get into the detail, some of Mankell’s criticisms seem reasonable – does it help to refuse to have your makeup done alongside a fascist before a TV debate? There are arguments for being there and taking part, and there are for “no-platforming” them, but that’s just silly. Conversely, not letting them distribute racist material to schools seems pretty reasonable to me.

The same debates took place here during the Euro elections, and it’s easy to see why. As is regularly observed, free speech only means anything when it applies to people whose opinions you abhor, people exactly like Nick Griffin. Yet does their right to freedom of speech mean he has to get rushed an invitation to the BBC’s Question Time less than six months after becoming an MEP? There have been Greens in the Scottish Parliament for eleven years, but not one has been invited onto this flagship programme.

The other instinct is the one expressed by Mankell – the far-right’s arguments are specious and flimsy as well as hateful, and a good debate with them shows that off. Griffin is almost a parody of himself (see how easy it was for Cassetteboy). The Scottish Greens debated a “no platform” policy some conferences ago, and a passionate version of this argument from a Highlands member won the day. It’s also fun to shout at them. It gives all good lefties that warm fuzzy feeling – we may disagree about the detail, but look how virtuous we all look next to these bastards. I’ve done it myself.

But what actually works? Is there a tactic to adopt which is consistent both with the morality of free speech and the tactics of stopping them? Bonnie Meguid did some research that might be useful for her book Party Competition Between Unequals (pdf), which looks at the tactical decisions made by larger parties to respond to newer entrants: the far right, the “ethnoterritorials” like the SNP (a description I’m sure they love), and the Greens.

Her theory focuses on the three issues of Position, Salience, and Ownership. When a new party appears with a single key policy (e.g anti-immigration, devolution/independence, the environment) other parties can amend their position on that issue, they can increase or decrease the extent to which that single issue is regarded as salient, and they can boost or reduce that new party’s ownership of the issue.

She considers three responses older parties can make to these new entrants. First, they can ignore them and ignore their issue. This helps reduce the importance with which the issue is regarded (salience), and, all other factors being equal, reduces the smaller party’s vote. For an example, the response of mainstream parties to the evangelicals’ call for an explicitly Christian politics gets almost totally ignored. Even the devout like Blair get told “we don’t do God”. Although Scottish politics used to have a stronger sectarian aspect, it’s now largely accepted that one’s faith or absence thereof simply isn’t salient to your politics.

Second, the existing parties can accommodate the newcomer’s issue and develop somewhat similar policy themselves: the Tories moved right on immigration when the National Front first appeared, for instance. This will again tend to depress the smaller party’s vote by reducing their ownership of their key issue. Meguid describes the successful ways first the Tories then Labour sought to accommodate environmentalism after the Green Party’s 1989 false dawn, an accommodation she believes was the main factor behind the decade of Green weakness before the election of first Robin to Holyrood then Jean and Caroline to the European Parliament.

Finally, the existing parties can take an adversarial approach (think the French Socialists attacking Le Pen). Counter-intuitively, this boosts smaller party votes by raising the profile of their issue and ensuring they own it in the public mind. Cynical use of this strategy is best done by parties at the opposite end of the spectrum, where they believe their mainstream opponents will suffer most, and they will gain, relatively. While she downplays the ideological satisfaction of this kind of combative approach, there are clearly examples where cynicism was the motivation. She describes one shocking incident in France where the Socialists persuaded their friends in broadcasting to invite Le Pen into a debate, a debate they then boycotted with a great fanfare.

There are some weaknesses in the theory, or at least incompletenesses – is each party’s internal coherence and organisational ability really not a significant factor? – but it suggests a way forward. Don’t ban them, don’t no-platform them, don’t egg them, don’t try to curtail their free speech and feed their victim mentality, but don’t rail against them or run specifically anti-Nazi campaigns. It’s tempting, it’s fun, but it’s strengthening them. The other parties should just work hard and get their own vote out. When you are in debates with them, just stay calm and stick to the issues (interestingly, this is the approach our Dutch colleagues have already adopted with Geert Wilders, I’m told).

And when you see someone running a campaign centred on them, perhaps it’s innocent, perhaps it’s cynical, but it seems pretty likely they’re also picking an easy way to cover up for their own shortage of ideas.