So, no change there then.
After week upon week of headlines and hysteria about a collapse in trust in mainstream politics, the European elections in Britain produce a result remarkably similar to last time's. In terms of share of the vote, the Conservatives, UKIP and the Lib Dems find themselves more or less unchanged: UKIP and the Tories up about one percent, the Lib Dems down about the same. The result in terms of seats is even closer to 2004. Only five out of 69 changed hands.
Of course, Labour did badly. But compared to last time, it only lost around 7% of the vote. It is striking that the governing party can command not much more than 15%. But considering the ongoing narrative of incompetence and collapse, we shouldn't be too surprised that few people could be bothered going out and voting Labour. It was merely a Euro-election, after all. European elections don't affect the government of the country (to be more exact, people don't realise that they affect the government of the country); they typically have a low turnout, which means that those who do vote are likely to be more highly motivated; and there was a confusing plethora of alternatives to choose from, everything from the Cornish nationalists to the Christian Party. In these circumstances, Labour can take a crumb of comfort from the fact that they managed to beat the Lib Dems, something which eluded it last time.
With all the talk of protest votes and an implosion of confidence in mainstream politics, this result was thoroughly conventional: an unpopular government lost votes in an election that was won, convincingly, by the main opposition party. Another lot of politicians, in other words. The people had an opportunity to express their resentment at the system by voting for fringe parties and independents, and they failed to take it. Yet this was the most propitious time there will ever be to wipe out the big parties. If the British people truly wanted a new politics, to turf out the tired and parasitic political class, they could have taken it on Thursday. They didn't.
Of the alternative parties, the English Democrats (whose policy platform reads like a Daily Mail editorial with its complaints about immigration and political correctness), the Christian Party of the Rev George "So Macho" Hargreaves and Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour all polled slightly more than 1%. The rest were nowhere. Few people were turned on by Declan Ganley's Libertas, despite its good organisation and funding, and its attractive pan-European platform of institutional reform. The Jury Team of Sir Paul Judge, whose ambition is to break the party monopoly by supporting independents, gained less than a half of one percent. The talk in recent weeks of the next Parliament being as celebrity-packed as the Priory looks like fantasy on such figures. Only a handful of Britain's pensioners voted for the Pensioners' Party, and even fewer wanted to give the Peace Party a chance.
But what about UKIP? What about the BNP? What about the Greens?
The thing to understand about UKIP - the thing that the media narrative consistently fails to understand about UKIP - is that it is no longer a fringe party in terms of the European parliament. Its support on this occasion - even allowing for the several thousand votes they probably lost as a consequence of poorly folded ballot papers - was not notably different from their result last time. In 2004, their campaign had a much higher profile, due to the topicality (which has dwindled) of European issues such as the Euro and the constitutional treaty. This time they probably benefited to some extent from a protest vote - but no more than the Greens, who improved their showing marginally, and less than the BNP, which is for various reasons a more natural home for disillusioned Labour supporters than UKIP, which is basically Tory in character. Most of their votes, this time and last, will have been anti-EU votes.
There is a largish constituency in Britain for the view that Britain (and perhaps the world) would be better off without the European Union - especially the EU as it is presently constituted. In a democracy, it is only natural that this view should be articulated by politicians; yet among the large Westminster parties none - not even the Conservatives - is unambiguously Eurosceptic. There is thus a gap which UKIP, for all its faults (including amateurism, fractiousness and dubious candidates) fills with increasing success. It's not going to go away. Given the inevitably low turnouts associated with EU elections (elections in which hardline Eurosceptics, paradoxically, are more motivated than most others) 15% strikes me as a perfectly natural and sustainable figure. If anything, UKIP should be doing even better. By this stage in its history, UKIP votes are scarcely more likely to be protest votes than are votes for the Lib Dems. Or, at least, they are a particular and structural protest against European integration, not a general and temporary protest against "the system" or politicians in general.
And, taking UKIP out of the equation, the illusion of a large protest vote is dispelled. The overtly racist BNP's share of the vote increased marginally; the total number of votes cast for them actually fell. In two regions, the collapse in the Labour vote (most of which seems to have stayed at home) gifted the BNP seats. But even here the picture is complicated. The North West, where Nick Griffin squeaked in, was in 2004 home to a controversial experiment in all-postal voting. This undoubtedly benefited Labour, and was probably responsible for keeping the BNP out last time. Some may believe that the affront to democracy that the experiment entailed was worth it for that reason alone. But I don't think we should be overtly worried by the neo-fascist success, which in percentage terms was rather small. That they have any MEPs can be put down to the voting system. It is regrettable, of course, that our money will now be paying Mr Griffin's salary. On the positive side, the increased exposure to which he and his party will now be subject will be effective in discrediting them. In any event, in a democracy even unpleasant views are entitled to representation if they are shared by a sufficient proportion of the population. But I don't imagine that they will go much further. Griffin will not be walking through the front door of Number Ten any time ever.
The Greens, for their part, underperformed, increasing their share of the vote by not much more than 2%. This despite the increased prominence of environmental concerns on the political agenda. It might be supposed that they would be a natural focus for left-leaning protest votes. Besides their basically socialist agenda, the Greens have been less tainted by political sleaze than the three main national parties or UKIP. So far as I can discover, they were not tainted at all. Indeed, in a population truly sick of the standard parties, and looking for a new politics, the Greens might expect to clean up. Their lack of sparkle in these elections therefore adds to my sense that conventional politics is functioning much as it ever did.
And I'm not particularly surprised. Most of the talk in recent weeks of "a very British revolution" has been complete guff. There are no people out on the streets, demanding the overthrow of the constitutional order. There are certainly no riots. Yes, people have been feeling even more aggravated than they usually do about the political class - but not with any expectation that things will change. No, this has not been a very British revolution. It has been a very British whinge.
Here's Kate Fox (Watching the English) on moaning:
Ritual moaning... is a form of social bonding, an opportunity to establish and reinforce common values by sharing a few gripes and groans about mutual annoyances and irritations. In all English moaning rituals, there is a tacit understanding that nothing can or will be done about the problems we are moaning about. We complain to each other, rather than tackling the true source of our discontent, and we neither expect nor want to find a solution to our problems - we just want to enjoy moaning about them. Our ritual moaning is purely therapeutic, not strategic or purposeful: the moan is the end in itself.
Most of the moaning Fox describes is about trivial things - train delays, the weather, meetings, Christmas and so on. But even in the midst of a supposed constitutional crisis the rule holds good. In this case, the predominant emotion is one of annoyance at politicians as a whole. This may be reflected to some extent in demands for a change in "the system" - especially when people are asked the question "Do you think the system ought to change?". Yet the intrinsic inertia of the system is as powerful as ever. Most people cannot conceive - except in jest - of actually voting for anything other than one of the conventional parties.
All we really want to see is politicians squirming, suffering, resigning, being publicly humiliated. We want to jeer and heckle on Question Time. This is entertainment comparable to watching celebrities undergoing degrading ordeals on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. In the case of that show, viewers' pleasure is not greatly diminished by the knowledge that the assorted D-listers are getting paid handsomely for their discomfiture. Likewise, voters accept that even the most deplorable expenses-grubbing MPs are unlikely to face proper justice. They also accept that, come general election time, they will with little enthusiasm exercise their quinquennial choice between one of the major parties - however many independents and new political movements are also angling for their vote.
And then it will be back to moaning as usual.
Monday, 8 June 2009
So, no change there then.