Voters turn their backs on Politicians
Kevin Leetion analyses the results of the 2009 European Parliament elections, which saw voters either turn off or turn their backs on establishment politicians.
In the 30 years of their existence, elections to the European Parliament have rarely captured the public imagination, being of little interest to anyone but psephologists and political parties. This is not to downplay their importance, or the role of the European Union in key aspects of our lives, particularly for rural and fishing communities, but turnout in Scotland in 2004 was just 31%, and 25% 5 years earlier.
While certainly no different in terms of public interest, the elections of June this year were perhaps lent a greater significance than normal by their wider context. These were the first national elections since the financial crisis really began to bite, with job security low and trust in Westminster even lower. This trust would unexpectedly plunge new depths during the expenses crisis in which the whole political establishment was caught up in the run-up to the polls. It was predicted well in advance that Europe would barely register as an issue and so it turned out. It was, as one Labour insider described it, “the dog that didn’t bark.” Media coverage throughout May was focussed much more on duck houses and constitutional crisis than directives and constitutional treaties. In the days leading up to and following the vote we would see the Labour Party appear to fall apart at the seams, a drama hitherto unassociated with a European election. They recognised that these elections also serve as an indicator, albeit imperfect, of the prevailing political winds as we enter the final months of this UK Parliament. They certainly aren’t blowing favourably for the government.
Labour in Crisis
A glance at the results, both in Scotland and the UK as a whole, reveals a disastrous result for Labour. It is true to say that these elections have not been particularly favourable to them in recent years. There may be a number of factors contributing to this: they are likely to have suffered from ‘protest votes’ as a sitting government in mid-term only for them to return for General Elections; there may be a eurosceptic element to their normal voting base; and Labour has always been disproportionately affected by low turnouts which are going to be the case when the actual relevance of the vote is not immediately apparent. However, these results are especially bad- down to just 15.7% across the UK, even falling behind UKIP; more than 8 percentage points behind the SNP; and no longer the largest party in Wales for the first time since the days of Lloyd George.
It was recognition of this impending disaster which brought the government infighting to a head. While some Labour MPs sought to blame the spate of ministerial resignations for the electoral humiliation, in reality the results were expected before Hazel Blears decided to jump ship, let alone the other Blairites who followed in the days after the poll. The days that followed saw Brown’s future hang in the balance as his opponents in government weighed up whether to stay or go. In the end the big names stayed and the leadership challenge petered out, but Brown has been left weakened, humiliated, and more than ever in the debt of Peter Mandelson. This is perhaps as significant as the actual results themselves.
So why do Labour find themselves in this way? The polls appeared to show a declining popularity throughout May which indicates that they were disproportionately affected by the expenses controversy, the big issue of that month. Is it true to say that this sort of behaviour is expected from the Tories whereas Labour voters feel especially let down? This argument doesn’t make sense given that the Tories were heavily punished for ‘sleaze’ in the past- why not now? A cumulative explanation is more persuasive- the Tories have escaped with relatively minor damage because they are not also blamed for leading the economy to the verge of collapse. In addition, Brown seems to have taken every opportunity to reassert his ‘New’ Labour credentials so as to attract voters from the centre right so effectively wooed in the past by Blair. From the 10p tax rate to part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, the traditional base that had been biding its time for Blair to leave has been given less and less reason to see Brown as any improvement and have therefore stayed at home.
Certainly the Tories were claiming victory south of the border finishing, as they did, 12 points ahead of Labour and with the expectation of many of the UKIP votes transferring over to them in a General Election. However, they will be disappointed with their overall percentage given the terrible situation the government finds itself in, just 1 point higher than 5 years ago. It was far from the ringing endorsement a self-proclaimed ‘government-in-waiting’ would be looking for. Nevertheless, on the face of it, with the additional success of UKIP and BNP (which I will return to later) it looks like a big shift to the right.
Scotland appears to have a different story with the biggest party by far and away being the SNP. While the context of politics in Scotland is obviously very different to the rest of the UK, the big issues of expenses and the financial crisis have been every bit as dominant of Scottish political discourse as anywhere else. It appears that despite two years in government and its previous endorsement of the Celtic Tiger approach, the SNP have not suffered from the failing economy in the same way as Labour. This will be a disappointment to unionists who have attacked the SNP by using the failure of ‘Scottish banks’ and the example of Iceland as evidence that independence would be the road to financial ruin. That strategy has failed and instead Labour has taken the blame.
These Scottish results could be interpreted as voters deserting the Labour Party for a viable centre-left alternative and this would be logical. The SNP has adopted popular leftist policies on prescription charges, a local income tax, free school meals and opposing nuclear weapons and Alec Salmond remains far more popular than any of his opponents. However, it’s worth noting that while Table 2 shows a big increase in the SNP vote, this is from a very low base five years ago in an election performance so poor that it put an end to John Swinney’s leadership. Their proportion of the vote is actually slightly down on the Holyrood list vote of 2007 (31%) and turnout was even lower in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK (29% and 35% respectively). This would seem to indicate that former Labour voters have not been flocking to the SNP over the last two years. That’s not to say that an 8% lead is an insignificant development, being an obvious reflection of their relative strength at present, but rather that the European election represented more of a consolidation of the SNP vote rather than real inroads into the Labour one. The real significance of this will be returned to shortly.
The Far Right
One of the biggest stories was, of course, the electoral breakthrough of the BNP. This wasn’t entirely unexpected given their sizeable vote 5 years previously and Richard Barnbrook’s election to the Greater London Assembly last year, but no less troubling. Two MEPs’ salaries and allowances will be worth millions of pounds over the course of the next 5 years which in itself will potentially allow them to up their profile, a profile they increased considerably throughout the campaign. Indeed, at times the amount of publicity they garnered in the media seemed somewhat disproportionate to their size, even in Scotland where they have never had any substantial support. In addition, there is a very real danger that this will ‘legitimise’ their views in some eyes. With nearly a million votes and representatives at the European level there will undoubtedly be more and more people who will say that they at least have a right to be heard.
The BNP’s success in the North West of England demonstrates the fundamental flaw of Unite Against Fascism. While the organisation’s arguments, activities and resources helped to ensure that there was actually a lower BNP vote than five years ago this was not enough. Without a clear obvious alternative, votes were either distributed across a number of parties or simply not cast at all allowing Griffin to sneak in.
The problem is that, according to a YouGov poll taken during the week of the election, most BNP voters seem quite satisfied that they know what the party stands for. 77% of people intending to vote for the BNP felt that white people suffer from unfair discrimination in Britain, while 70% felt that Muslims benefit from unfair advantages. 94% believed that all further immigration into the UK should be halted and 79% agreed that “even in its milder form, Islam is a serious danger to western civilisation.” Given this, telling people not to vote for them because they are a racist party is obviously not going to be effective- their voters tend to agree with many of their policies. It is not just a matter of who people are voting for; it is the views that a sizeable section of the population actually holds that is the problem. Of all likely voters, the same poll said 61% felt that all further immigration should be halted and 40% felt white people suffer from unfair discrimination (compared to 19% who thought non-white people are discriminated against).
The immediate reaction from the main parties and the media is not promising. The problem, apparently, is that the ‘legitimate’ concerns of BNP voters are not being taken seriously. The most immediate effect of the BNP’s success may be the sight of Labour and Conservatives battling to outdo each other in their harshness towards immigrants and asylum seekers, a battle that has up to now most probably contributed to the current environment where 22% of voters believe most crime is committed by immigrants. Instead of using their power and platform to address misconceptions, explain the circumstances that bring people to claim asylum, or stress the positive aspects of immigration, mainstream parties will want to be seen to make immigration as difficult as possible. While addressing their ‘legitimate’ concerns they will continue to hypocritically decry the BNP as racist.
Scotland is in a slightly different situation where the BNP vote was far lower than in the rest of the UK. However, there is no room for complacency. When the SSP was strong, the BNP was largely an irrelevance, not because they addressed their ‘legitimate’ concerns but because they confronted them. With the left weak and divided the BNP has seen its vote increase and will benefit from MEPs in England because of its increased resources and national media profile.
There’s no disguising the fact that it was generally a disappointing, if unsurprising, set of results for the left. The Greens will take some satisfaction in increasing their share of the vote in England by more than any other party, but even they failed to increase their representation. In Scotland, their vote was only up marginally on 2004 when the SSP was still relatively strong. That said, it is up by 4% on the list vote of 2007 which indicates that they may have attracted former Labour voters in the past 2 years.
There was no such consolation for the rest of the left with Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party polling highest on 1% in the UK and a surprising 2% in Scotland. An administrative error meant that Labour appeared as ‘The Labour Party’ in Scotland rather than the more recognisable ‘Scottish Labour Party’ which may have led to some votes going to the SLP in error (in a similar way to how they achieved a disproportionately high vote in Glasgow North East in 2005 when there was no Labour candidate). However, outside Glasgow many of their votes appear to have come from former mining areas such as Lanarkshire and Fife which may indicate that Scargill still enjoys some personal support.
Either way, with virtually no profile, activists, or even members in Scotland, their 2% puts both the SSP’s and No2EU’s 0.9% each into perspective. The SSP can point to its improvement on the 2007 election as a positive and No2EU have stressed that they only came into existence weeks beforehand but the fallout of the split is clearly ongoing, and the squeeze of the left-of-Labour vote by a relatively popular SNP a crucial factor in Scotland. At this point it’s difficult to see how the No2EU project can continue in its current form. Its message was too narrow and simplistic, completely misjudging the key issues concerning people at this election, and its organisation was undemocratic. This led directly to candidates openly contradicting each other at hustings on basic questions such as whether they would actually take up their seats if elected. Only time will tell whether the SSP will benefit in the longer term from continuing to stand under its own name and campaign, focussing on an anti-greed theme to link the avarice of the political elite with the root causes of the financial crisis.
Challenges and potential
The results themselves are not encouraging for the left in Scotland. While there may be other useful measurements for the success of a campaign for smaller parties- profile, growth in membership, revitalisation of activists- a good result would have been an indication of an anti-capitalist message really resonating during capitalism’s greatest crisis in generations. However, things are set to change over the next year in terms of the effect of the crisis and the trajectory of the other political parties.
The struggle within the Labour Party will not see it turn left to address its problems. While it may curb some measures for reasons of political expediency, such as the privatisation of Royal Mail, it is unlikely to radically alter its direction with Peter Mandelson now in such a powerful position. There is no effective challenge from the left within the Parliamentary Labour Party to force any such change anyway. One Labour MP sought to explain away the results across Europe as voters always lurching to the right when times are uncertain. Not only is this factually dubious, it relies on voters being able to clearly distinguish the policies of, for example, Labour and Tories. However, it does observe that the traditional established parties of the centre-left have struggled all over Europe- UK, Germany, France, Italy- whether they are in government or not. But a better explanation than the mystical instinctive rightward swing posited by that MP is that these parties have simply failed to convince their former voters that they have the answers to the crisis. It is no coincidence that these parties have spent nearly two decades espousing their versions of the ‘Third Way’ or ‘Neue Mitte’ and are now coming unstuck. They have been deserted by the centre-right who have suitable alternatives to vote for, and their own electoral base who no longer see a reason to vote for them.
The crisis itself shows no signs of abating and workers will continue to suffer from redundancy and pay freezes. Cuts in public services are likely to be the next step, whether under a Labour or Conservative government. Things are going to get worse before they get better. In Scotland, the SNP are going to have to be the ones who implement the cuts to health, to education, to councils. Are they going to be able to avoid the blame as they have done up to now when it is the services for which they are responsible that start to fail?
A Tory government looks increasingly likely within the next year and this will have a particularly interesting effect in Scotland. A YouGov poll in April showed that 35% of Scottish voters were more likely to support independence in those circumstances. An independence referendum before 2011 is far from certain given the current composition of the Scottish Parliament and the opposition of the unionist parties to allowing a vote. However, the debate is going to be there along with an opportunity for the left to help shape it.
With a continuing economic crisis and an increasingly confident BNP, the need for a strong left has hardly been more important. As mentioned previously, BNP supporters aren’t voting that way simply because there isn’t a convincing socialist part to vote for, but the need to shape the public debate and appeal to others that feel estranged from the political system is crucial. 71% of Scottish voters already do not see enough answers in any of the political parties to inspire them to vote for them. The political terrain is set to change, how the left and the SSP in particular can meet those challenges is another matter.
1. Includes 1 UCUNF MEP from Northern Ireland
2. The Independent 4th June 2009, p10.
3. 28th May: Populus/Times put Labour on 16% and ICM/Sunday Telegraph put them on 17%. 29th May: YouGov/Daily Telegraph also put them on 17%.
4. 4th May: ICM/Taxpayers Alliance put Labour on 28%. 8th May: YouGov/Sunday Times 25%. 10th May: Populus/Times 25%.