A right romp (8 June 2009)
Lewis Baston on the winners and loses in the European elections
Gordon Brown surveys a landscape of ruins this morning. Labour’s 15% of the vote in the European elections is absolutely abysmal, the worst ever for the party by a considerable margin. The ignominious details pile up – behind the Conservatives in Wales, far behind the SNP in Scotland, fifth and without enough votes to qualify for a seat in south-west England.
It is a disaster without recent precedent or parallel. At least in the 1931 general election there was still a solid 30% working class vote for Labour. One might have to look back to 1924 and the end of the Liberals as a party of government. It might have been even worse, had voters in urban areas without county elections not turned out in unexpected strength – hence the smaller slide in the Labour vote in London and the strange bright spot of Leicester. Many of these determined voters were hoping to stop the BNP.
Much has and will be written, a lot of it valid, about how mainstream politics has created the conditions of alienation and anger that led to the BNP vote – and the parties will try to bid for support by “understanding” the feelings of those voters. Less will probably be written on the need, to quote John Major, to “condemn a little more, understand a little less”. With the array of protest parties contesting the elections, nobody can claim not to have had enough choice of political spittoons to expectorate into, but a large number of people chose that particular one. Before the election, there was some hope that the BNP’s reputation for racism and thuggery would cause voters to think twice about supporting them, no matter how cross they were with the Westminster parties. But while some BNP voters may not themselves be racist, indulging a temper tantrum with the system was more important to them than the rights and dignity of their fellow citizens from ethnic minorities.
The Green party has reason to be disappointed with the election. It was untainted by any expenses problems and has a programme of political reforms, so it could have hoped for more than to displace Labour as the fourth party in southern England. But the politics of recession tends to be difficult for Greens, who find that voters anxious about their jobs are less concerned about the long term.
The Liberal Democrats also fared indifferently. Euro elections are always difficult for them because their pro-EU stand is unfashionable and their campaigning techniques centre around candidates’ personalities. The protest vote headed instead towards the right, with Ukip polling at levels that seemed inconceivable a few months ago. It is ironic indeed that the expenses saga seems to have driven people towards a party whose MEP group elected in 2004 contained a benefit fraudster and another currently under investigation for expenses fraud. A deeper irony is that Ukip fetishises precisely the Westminster parliament that people are supposedly disgusted by and want to reform.
The Conservatives did well in the circumstances, considering their own deep involvement in the Westminster expenses scandal and their own spot of bother in the European arliament that led to one MEP being expelled from the group and their then-leader Giles Chichester stepping down over a “whoops-a-daisy” breach of the rules over his own expenses. Chichester returned to Brussels and Strasbourg in triumph at the head of the south-west Conservative list that won half the region’s seats.
With the exception perhaps of those in Scotland, the European elections saw the British voter in a sour and unpleasant mood, vulnerable to the blandishments of an assortment of rightwing populists. Other countries have had elections a bit like this where the normal rules do not apply, as with the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in 1980s France, or the Lega Nord in 1990s Italy, or the Pim Fortuyn election in the Netherlands in 2002. Sometimes these episodes prove short lived. Let us hope that when the 2014 European elections begin, we look at the 2009 results and wonder: “What on earth were people thinking?”