The June election results and what they mean for Britain and the EU

The UK media account of the local council and European parliament elections held in Britain on 10 June, 2004, has been pretty well unanimous in agreeing that the elections were effectively won by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a strange collection of passé celebrities and superannuated politicians with virtually no policy except UK withdrawal from the EU; that the UKIP success has gravely, perhaps terminally, damaged the renascent Conservative Party under its newish and improbable leader, Michael Howard, by peeling off from it the numerous hard-line Europhobes who can’t accept the Tory party official line that the EU should be reformed and the draft constitution rejected but that Britain should remain inside it; and that the Labour Party, having secured the lowest share of the vote for around a hundred years, can no longer be sure of a third electoral victory in the general election which, as virtually all the commentators agree, will be held during 2005.

This received wisdom however raises some questions. UKIP won a remarkable, but far from earth-shattering, 16% share of the vote in the European parliament elections , well behind Labour with 23% and the Tories with 27%, and only one percentage point ahead of the LibDems. The really significant thing about these results, surely, is that the Europhobe (UKIP) and Eurosceptic (Conservative) votes together totalled 43% of those voting, and if you add to these the Euro-phobic and –sceptic voters who nevertheless voted Labour, Green, BNP or for other minor parties, it’s probably fair to say that more than half the voters in this election were strongly hostile to UK membership of the EU, or far from enthusiastic about it, at any rate in its present form. However, on a turnout of only 38.2% (itself well up on 1999’s turnout of a mere 24%), the evidence of Europhobia/scepticism affecting more than half of those voting amounts to only around 20% of the electorate. We simply don’t know what proportion of those who abstained from voting share the anti-Europeanism of those who voted for anti-EU parties.

The alleged damage done to the Tories by UKIP’s success also needs to be seen in context. The European parliament elections gave the hard-line Tory EU-haters an opportunity to register their hostility to UK membership of the Union by voting for UKIP without damaging the Conservative Party’s chances of gaining office at a general election. At a general election, with UKIP having no hope of coming top in a first-past-the-post contest and forming a government, but with the Tories’ chances liable to be badly damaged by a big vote for UKIP, many of those who voted this month for UKIP will undoubtedly return to the Tory fold, having made their gesture. Already, according to a Guardian/ICM poll taken immediately after the June 10 elections, 36% of them are saying that they will go back to voting Conservative at the next general election; more will no doubt follow suit when they contemplate the reality that next time they vote, they will be helping to choose a government rather than simply making a painless gesture.

The general election implications of the dramatic collapse of the Labour vote, with a bare 10% of the electorate voting for the governing party – one voter in ten! — is more difficult to interpret. It’s obvious that a substantial number of committed Labour Party members and supporters are strongly opposed to the Iraq war and that most of them blame Tony Blair personally: for having got Britain into it; for his apparently slavish adherence to George W Bush, down to the last American administration folly and outrage; for having deceived the country (and probably himself) about the reasons for going to war and its real objectives; for having acted illegally and without the authority of the UN; for his part in the coalition’s failure to plan adequately for the post-war administration and reconstruction of Iraq; and for his apparent determination to send several thousand more British troops into the Iraqi quagmire. Such people were unwilling to vote Labour in the European parliament elections while Blair remained party leader and prime minister, and many of them refused to give the party the essential support in leafleting, door-to-door and telephone canvassing, tallying, etc., on which a party’s success still in part depends. Many of the people in this category stayed at home; some turned out to vote for the anti-war Labour candidate for Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, but then either spoiled their ballot papers for the other local elections and the European parliament election, or voted for one of the left-wing fringe parties, as a form of protest. The same recent ICM poll suggests that only 50% of those who voted Labour at the 2001 general election voted Labour again in the European and local elections this June. But (like those who deserted the Tories for UKIP to register their anti-Europeanism) many of these anti-Blair Labour voters will undoubtedly return to the Labour fold in the next general election, even if – as seems very likely – Blair is still leader at that time, on the simple calculation that Michael Howard and the Tories would be even worse. The same ICM poll indicates that if there were to be a general election ‘tomorrow’ (i.e. shortly after the 10 June local and European elections), the Labour vote would bounce back from this month’s 23% to a somewhat more convincing 34%, with the Tories winning 31%, the LibDems 22% (historically a good score for the Liberals), and UKIP a mere 4%. This would return Labour to office for a third term on a much reduced majority. In fact, barring some damaging drama (in Iraq? over the leadership?) between now and then, Labour is likely to make a better recovery than the June 2004 ICM poll suggests, as memories of the origins of the Iraq war begin to fade, as the party in power enjoys its traditional boost in the run-up to the election, and as more and more of the June 2004 defectors are forced to face the reality of the choice confronting them.

Moreover, voices are already being raised within the Labour Party questioning why the general election has to be held in 2005, when legally (and perhaps politically) it could well be deferred until 2006. The conventional wisdom is that the electorate punishes a governing party that hangs on until the last permissible minute, but it ain’t necessarily so.

So the only safe conclusion from these sad, complex results is that Labour remains favourite to win the next general election, although with far less certainty than before 10 June; that nevertheless Tony Blair’s previous status as a sure-fire election-winner is in doubt for the first time, and perhaps irretrievably damaged; and that there is a strongly hostile or sceptical mood over Europe in the country, probably in virtually all parties apart from the LibDems – although the fact remains that in the June elections, around 80% of those voting voted for parties which are opposed to UK withdrawal from the EU.

It is essential to remember, too, that the anti-European mood can’t be ascribed simply to the vicious misrepresentations and mendacious slurs of the Murdoch press and other tabloids: and that you don’t have to be one of what the Guardian’s economics editor recently called (in an important article) "the swivel-eyed loonies of the rightâ€? to recognise that many key aspects of the EU are indeed deeply unsatisfactory and in urgent need of repair: the Common Agricultural Policy, still largely unreformed; the abysmal performance of the EU development aid programme; the disastrously deflationary rules governing the management of the Euro and the European Central Bank, forcing even the most ardent pro-Europeans to recognise that there is no persuasive case for Britain to join the common currency at this time and under current rules; partly as a result, the poor economic performance of the principal Eurozone countries, with high unemployment and low growth, undermining the principal arguments for a strong EU; the dreadful, grandiloquent guff padding out the draft constitutional treaty whose fate is to be decided this week, and alongside it, the constant alienating demands of the Eurofanatics on the continent for "ever closer unionâ€?, implying and sometimes even stating that the EU’s final destination must be a single nation-state – a concept utterly unacceptable in Britain, with its global and especially trans-Atlantic and Commonwealth history and world-view, and probably almost as unacceptable in most other EU countries, too. The Commission appears to be incompetently, wastefully, and perhaps corruptly run, unable to accept a relatively modest role as the EU’s civil service, constantly straining to act like a government, perhaps because it is led by politicians but ought to be headed by experienced administrators. And another worry is the poor quality of so many of Europe’s most prominent leaders, including our own, and the unpopularity of many of them in their own countries. To ignore, or even to try to deny, these fundamental problems is a kind of treason on the part of those in Britain who genuinely want a strong and influential European Union of member countries in a new, unprecedented form of association, more than a free trade area but less than a single federal state, bringing economic, social and political benefits to all its citizens and to the wider world. Mounting scepticism about all these features of the EU in its current state has spread in varying degrees throughout our continent, especially perhaps in Britain and eastern and central Europe, but to a degree in its other western areas also. The results of the June 2004 elections throughout Europe represent a warning: we can no longer turn a blind eye to the pressing need for change.

London, 17 June 2004