Monday, 8 June 2009

European Elections 2009 - My analysis of a painful night

It was a brutal, painful and embarrassing night last night, and trying to sleep off the bitter feeling didn't help (especially since a crying baby was meaning sleep was but a distantly remembered concept!). In an attempt at catharsis I will therefore throw my analysis of the election into the blogging mix, on a party-by-party/issue basis. At the risk of trivialising it, I will also give each party a grade for the election, to show my arbitrary assessment of how they have done - please feel free to agree or disagree with that.

What can be said about last night that doesn't just slip into hyperbole? The collapse of our vote to 15.3% is a disaster on an unprecedented scale, seeing us pick up our lowest national vote share in 100 years. Slipping behind UKIP into third place is also a situation that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. We have criticised and derided UKIP as a party of the lunatic fringe (and with some justification) but in regards to European politics they can today legitimately claim to be the party of more British citizens than we are.

When looked at in more depth, the results are even more depressing as heartland areas fell. Labour failed to win in Wales, slipping behind the Tories, and was hammered by the SNP in Scotland, barely managing to keep the vote share in both countries above 20%. Luckily in Scotland we managed to return two MEPs (as far can be seen, as the Scottish results are not confirmed yet due to the Western Isles refusing to count on the Sabbath), which given the context and scale of the rout is a small positive. However, the results demonstrate that there are no safe areas for Labour now, and that in Scotland in particular we are clearly second place to the SNP who have cemented their position.

Now debate will be renewed about Gordon Brown's position, although I don't expect this to go anywhere - the reshuffle on Friday has bound the main political movers into his government, and there are no alternatives to replace him. There is also the news that the recession may be over (for now), leaving the bold and optimistic predictions for growth which the Government has based its policies on in with a shout of succeeding - indeed, the FT suggests that the Government's prediction may turn out to have been too pessimistic. This leaves open the possibility of an upturn in economic success for the Government, which Gordon Brown could use to reinvigorate our chances in the run up to an election next year. Only time will tell.

But for now, we are battered and bruised and embarrassed.

Mark - Fail

On the face of it this was a successful night for the Tories, as they remained the largest party for the European elections, slightly increasing their share of the vote. More importantly for them, they won the election in Wales for the first time since the 19th Century, beating Labour into second. Considering the initial speculation had been that Plaid would be the main beneficiaries of the Labour collapse, this is a spectacular result for them and exactly the kind of gains they need to see if they are going to be successful in winning the next General Election.

However, I don't think that it will be a night that the Conservatives will over-exaggerate, as in some ways they will have cause for disappointment, or at least reflection, on the results. Given that the Labour vote completely vanished, they will have been disappointed to have only seen their vote share rise by 1% and to have only gained one MEP (although this figure was affected by the reduction in the number of MEPs from the 2004 election). They failed to break the 30% mark, which reflects the facts that a) the public disenchanted with all of the major parties, and b) that they have not yet 'sealed the deal' with the electorate. It is hard to extrapolate from the European elections to a General Election (and of course the Local elections in England were a resounding success for the party) but the Tories need a 6.9% swing from Labour to win the next General Election - and that would only give them a hypothetical majority of 2. To put it in context, there has only been a swing of that size or greater at two elections since the Second World War (Labour in 1945 and in 1997), making it a historically difficult possibility. Definitely not impossible (and in the current climate still likely) but should ensure that the Conservatives take a win for granted at their peril.

Mark - B+

Liberal Democrats
The Lib Dems picked up one more MEP than last time, and obviously that is a cause for delight for them. They will also be relieved to have retained their MEP in Scotland, which for a while looked like an uphill task for them.

However, I think overall these elections are very disappointing for them. They lost 1.1% of the national share of the vote, failing to benefit at all (nationally at least) from the Labour collapse, and remained in a very distant 4th place. Coupled with Local elections which were slightly disappointing overall, the Lib Dems will not be able to go away from these elections with any great delight (although Clegg, bless him, is doing his best).

Obviously the implications for a General Election are very hard to assess - UKIP beat the Lib Dems at the 04 Euros but were subsequently beaten at the General Election the following year, so I wouldn't expect the Lib Dems to stop being the third party in Westminster any time soon. However, their bold predictions that they would somehow become the main Opposition does seem rather wide of the mark. It is also a reflection of the fact that they are, to a certain extent, starting to be seen as irrelevant for the European elections, which is a worrying sign for the pro-EU camp.

Mark - C-

Another strange situation when it comes to assessment. Effectively UKIP didn't change - their vote share was up slightly (0.5%) and they gained one more MEP. Impressive but not earth shattering. Rather the key issue for them was that due to Labour's collapse they moved up to become the second placed party for the UK. In addition, they picked up their first MEP in Wales, demonstrating a possibility that they can expand beyond their Anglo-centric power base.

The key issue to take from their showing is the fact that Britain has to be considered, electorally at least, a Euro sceptic country. Just taking the three main Euro sceptic parties (the Conservatives, UKIP and the BNP), over half the electorate expressed their support for their policies - this doesn't include other Euro sceptic parties who also picked up votes. Indeed, excluding the Northern Irish results, the Euro sceptic parties picked up 40 of the 69 seats on offer.

The pro-European argument is not making any headway with the British electorate, which is not surprising considering how little effort is put into it. A presumption is made that people will take for granted that the EU is a force for good, with not explanation required. This is an arrogant and patronising approach, which is helping the Eurosceptic cause in attacking Britain's role in the EU.

It will be interesting to see where UKIP go from here, as they still effectively only remain a European Parliamentary force (albeit a substantial one). I don't think that their success last night translates into General Election success, and indeed I would expect a significant swathe of their support to turn to the Conservatives in a General Election, boosting their chances. However, for bragging rights alone last night has to be put down as a massive success for UKIP, and one which they will enjoy for a long time.

Mark - A

Last night was a resounding success for the SNP, and boy didn't Salmond love it! The fact of the matter is that they thrashed the Labour Party for the first time ever in Scotland (they won the 07 Scottish Parliamentary elections, but it was a far more close run event) but, more crucially, saw all three of their main opposition parties (who are also all Unionist parties) lose votes.

The SNP can rightly claim to be master of all they survey in Scotland just now. There may be a slight disappointment that they didn't break the 30% mark or that they didn't manage to grab a third seat (this was certainly one of the best chances they will ever have to do that) but these are minor points for a very successful evening. Two years into their Government they can be very pleased with where they stand and will be confident of increasing their support in the event of a Conservative victory at Westminster. For the Unionist parties it is a clear kick up the backside - if they don't want the SNP to run away with the political agenda in Scotland they need to sort their acts out now.

Mark - A

Yesterday was a dark day for British politics with the BNP picking up not only their first MEP, but a second buddy for him to play with. This is a national embarrassment. The reality is that the BNP actually didn't pick up huge amounts of support, indeed indications are that they received fewer votes. However, the reduced turnout led to them being able to secure a great share of the vote, which is the crucial factor used under the D'Hondt system.

The main political parties all have to take responsibility for this situation, but it is Labour in particular who must apologise. The majority of the BNP's support comes from traditional Labour communities, and it is this disenfranchised underclass who are registering support for the BNP. However, voters shouldn't be absolved of all responsibility in this matter - a vote for the BNP is not a protest vote, it is a vote in favour of their divisive and ludicrous agenda. Labour and the other parties must now reassess their approach to the BNP in order to determine the best way in which to combat and defeat them.

For the crucial aspect of this breakthrough is not that they will necessarily do anything at the European Parliament other than embarrass the country by their odious presence. Rather it is the legitimacy that electoral success gives them as a 'proper' political party. Whilst the transition from European success to Westminster is not automatic (as UKIP can testify to) it does make it more possible, particularly in the communities where the BNP are now the main opposition. These are dangerous times for British politics.

Mark - A (this is given with great grudging, however their breakthrough cannot be denied).

Other parties
This was a night for the smaller parties, with their votes going up. However, success was actually limited. The Greens ironically suffered from the voting system (normally they are beneficiaries of PR systems) as they failed to pick up any more MEPs despite increasing their vote share. Plaid had a disappointing night in Wales - they had been tipped to overtake Labour and win the popular vote, but remained in third place. For the other parties they saw an increase in their vote share, but were nowhere near electoral breakthrough.

Mark - C

So a brutal night for the Labour Party and really all of the other results have to be taken within this context. But the key issue is really that the British electorate are not connected to the European Parliament or its work, and have expressed their apathy with the political system by staying away from the polling booth. It is that apathy that we must all combat if we wish to avoid the BNP and their ilk increasing their electoral successes.

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