The consensus seems to be that, Europe-wide, it was a good election for the centre-right. It certainly seems as though the governing centre-left parties have taken a bit of a battering, while voters seem content with centre-right governments.
Those of a socialist persuasion may well feel disgruntled. In the midst of an economic crisis which they say was caused by the excesses of capitalism, voters seem to have lost faith in socialist parties’ ability to deal with it. The far left also took a knock. On the other hand, the Green grouping is the one grouping (aside from non-aligned) to have increased its representation in the European Parliament.
Interestingly, despite the fact that apathy was the clear winner of the election across the EU, the main Eurosceptic grouping was almost totally wiped off the map, with the exception of Ukip. Perhaps domestic issues are the cause of this. But if 2004 was the breakthrough year for Eurosceptic parties (which led to the formation of the Independence / Democracy group), 2009 was the bump back to earth. As thing stand (and no doubt they will try to woo more MEPs on board), Ukip alone now account for almost two thirds of the grouping.
The UK-only picture was rosier for Ukip, but only slightly. This year will be remembered for the fact that they finished 2nd ahead of Labour. But they would be deluding themselves if they believed this was because of a rise in support. Their increase in the share of the vote was a pretty titchy 0.3 percentage points. Indeed, they gained fewer votes than in 2004, and got just one extra MEP despite the huge collapse in trust of the major Westminster parties.
In a lot of ways, the UK picture as a whole is surprisingly static. Yes, there was a massive drop in support for Labour. But none of the major parties were in a position to capitalise, so everyone apart from Labour just shuffled up a bit. In the circumstances, the Conservatives ought to be pretty miffed that they lost votes and increased their vote share by just 1 percentage point. It doesn’t exactly look like a party with the momentum to take a Westminster landslide.
The Lib Dems, who arguably weren’t hurt nearly as much as Labour and the Tories by the expenses scandal, managed to reduce their share of the vote, which almost no other party did. Of course Labour’s share decreased. Plaid Cymru’s UK-wide share decreased, but their Wales-only share went up. The only other party to reduce its share of the vote was the Scottish Socialist Party, which has cemented its place in history by being consigned to it.
The BNP made a different kind of history by winning two seats, which became the story of the election. It was probably inevitable that people would “blame” proportional representation for this. But the simple fact is that PR doesn’t vote fascists in — fascist voters do.
6.8% is not an inconsiderable share. Almost a million voters decided to put their cross next to the BNP on the ballot paper, and they didn’t do so by accident. Gerrymandering them out of existence will only exacerbate the problem.
That’s not to say that the closed party list system used for European Elections isn’t flawed, because it is — deeply so. But the corrupt First Past the Post system would only further increase the anger that people feel at being disenfranchised by the political system.
In a lot of ways, the BNP’s “success” is pretty unremarkable. In 2004 they were the sixth most successful party. This year, they were still the sixth most successful party. In the region where Nick Griffin won his seat, the North West, the BNP actually got fewer votes than in 2004.
The BNP only got seats because Labour’s collapse was so dramatic, and those former Labour votes went to a large variety of smaller parties. 11.3% of votes went to parties that weren’t among the top eight, compared to 8.3% that went to other parties in 2004 (and that was in the days of a relatively strong Respect party).
The BNP didn’t gain seats because they caught up with those in front. They gained seats because others joined the queue behind them. Despite still having five people in front of them, the BNP effectively moved closer to the front in relation to the entire queue — just because more people joined behind them.
Nonetheless, any attempts to ignore or belittle the BNP’s success, or to gerrymander it away, should be condemned. It is important to understand why people would come to vote for a fascist party, because that is the best way of defeating the ideology.
Luckily, YouGov have done a good job at finding out (more detail here). And — surprise surprise — it seems that BNP voters are mostly racist. That rather undermines the idea that people voted for the BNP just as a protest vote. With so many potential protest parties, why choose BNP? I guess they were at the top of many ballot papers, but that oughtn’t gain them so many votes. No, people vote for the BNP mostly because they are racists.
In difficult economic circumstances, people often turn to fascism. It is totally misguided to do so though. One potential plus side of the BNP gaining a couple of MEPs is the fact that the spotlight will now be shone on them, and people will see just how rotten their ideology is.
I will look at the Scottish results in a separate article