Well, they did it. After months of speculation that Nigel Farage and his supporters were over-egging their chances of topping the Euros, UKIP proved that it wasn’t hubris after all. They won on vote share and on number of seats – pushing the Tories into third place (a first in a national election) and denying Ed Miliband’s Labour Party the chance to demonstrate that they were truly connecting with the electorate. UKIP has given the political establishment the bloody nose they hoped for – and achieved a first in British political history.
And yet, we’re not seeing a complete breakdown within the main parties. The Conservative Party hasn’t melted into a panicked feeding frenzy. David Cameron isn’t expecting a visit from the 1922 committee, bearing a revolver and a bottle of Glenfiddich. In fact, privately, he and his team are breathing a sigh of relief (whilst, of course, maintaining appropriately sombre faces). Morale amongst Tory MPs and grandees is weakened – but these results point to digging-in on the Conservative backbenches rather than to lashing-out at their Leader. Expect rumblings, though, of private concern over the next year as more and more of his eurosceptics begin to wonder whether a deal with Farage might not be a good idea after all. We may also see an escalation in calls for Boris to play a bigger role – Labour’s crushing of the Conservative Party has underlined just how impressive Boris’ two Mayoral victories in the capital were. Cameron has a year to prove he’s killed off the UKIP 2015 challenge – or he will see a drift towards individual deals between his backbenchers and the Kippers.
And while UKIP’s victory is attention-grabbing, it isn’t as dramatic as it looks. The biggest UK party in the Euros was the ‘no-one, thanks’ party of apathy. Turnout was just 36% – up around one point on last time but still way below the European average and a woeful display of disinterest. What’s more, the tiny turn out points to UKIP’s failure to deliver on their promises to reignite interest amongst non-voters. Once again, the parties were fishing in the pool of those who always turn out rather than reaching people who ‘don’t do politics’.
Labour’s second place means that they beat the Tories and, on the basis of the local election results combined with this poll, Ed Miliband could expect to be forming the next Government. But there are a number of significant psephological and historic factors that undermine that achievement. For a start, no opposition has gone on to form a majority Government without first becoming the largest party in local government – Labour hasn’t done this. Second, historical trends tend to show the opposition party narrowing their lead in the run-up to the General Election. Labour is only one or two points ahead of the Conservative Party on the basis of these polls – not normally enough to predict victory.
These results show that Ed Miliband has failed to capitalise on anger with the Government, and that picking up Lib Dem switchers will not guarantee the kind of sweeping gains that Labour are hoping for. But do not expect too much in the way of open rebellion. Ed will survive, and will point to the unusual success of UKIP and the fact that Labour polled very well in London, in order to shore up his position. Labour does not reach to regicide by habit and Ed probably has sufficient good or simply bamboozling news to hold his enemies at bay. More likely, on the basis of these results, that Miliband ends up with the poisoned chalice of a ‘just enough’ legacy – and a ‘just enough’ Government that ends up as weak and plagued with in-fighting as any coalition.
For the Liberal Democrats, though, these results are apocalyptic. Nick Clegg’s party doesn’t just have the typical, political urge to win when it comes to the European elections. They have an emotional tie to the European Parliament – one founded on their genuine belief in the importance of the EU – losing all but one of their representatives in that Parliament is a hammer blow. After the
local results, there were stirrings of discontent amongst Lib Dem candidates and councilors – expect these rumblings to escalate over coming days.
Of course, at home the Euro elections are most interesting for what they say about the 2015 General Election. But they do matter in terms of their impact on the EU as a whole and upon ongoing negotiations about the future of the Union. For example, the rise in Eurosceptic parties across Europe – such as the AFD in Germany – will create a headache for supporters of the status quo. It also creates a difficult situation for David Cameron. Cameron withdrew his MEPs from the European People’s Party – the grouping of centre-right parties that includes, for example, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. His new grouping (European Conservatives and Reformists) will struggle to achieve the pre-requisite numbers in order to become a recognised political grouping in the Parliament. This could be overcome by, for example, inviting the AFD into a coalition. However, doing so would make it even harder to achieve concessions from Merkel when it comes to David Cameron’s renegotiations. Who is up, and who is down, in the European Parliament really does matter.
The European elections matter politically and practically. They show-up Labour’s inability to properly break through electorally. They are a damning result for Nick Clegg. They are a massive boon for Nigel Farage and for UKIP and they present the Conservative Party with massive dilemmas on the European stage. Expect the fallout from these elections to dominate political narratives right up until the campaign proper in 2015. That’s good news for Nigel Farage, but it leaves Cameron, Miliband and Clegg under unhelpful and unwelcome scrutiny.