[Michael Calderbank, Brent Central CLP, examines the numbers and assesses their significance for next year’s General Election]
Following a distinctly mixed set of results at the locals , the European elections gave Labour a meagre 1.4% lead over the Tories. We would need to be substantially further ahead to feel confident of winning an outright majority at next year’s General Election. Meanwhile, UKIP’s victory – topping the national poll on 27% – was the first time since 1910 that a national election had not been won by one of the big two parties. Excluding the particularly strong support in London, Labour’s lead would have evaporated, demonstrating just how much work the Party still has to do. If UKIP can poll even half as strongly next year this could determine the fate of a number of key target seats. There is a real danger that UKIP could consolidate itself as the voice of protest in working class areas previously loyal to Labour.
Our own campaign said next to nothing on Europe or why it might be important to elect Labour representatives to the European Parliament. The debate between Farage and Clegg showed how weak the mainstream case for continued membership of the EU has become, amounting to little beyond “we must stay in because it’s good for business”. Implicitly accepting there was no popular case to be made on Europe, Labour had little left to say. Compounding this difficulty, Miliband distanced himself from the idea of giving a chance for voters to have their say on membership of the EU via a referendum. We cannot afford to repeat such mistakes in our campaign at the General Election; we must offer positive reasons to vote Labour.
Rather than make concessions on immigration to try to win back support from UKIP, we must come forward with a bold and popular series of positive reasons to vote Labour. This means taking to task the bankers and bosses whose greed led to the economic crisis and austerity cuts, rather than scapegoating immigrants or benefit claimants.
The success of UKIP can be seen as part of a wider backlash against EU institutions which was felt across much of Europe. This saw opinion increasingly polarised with support growing for candidates of the far right and radical left. Shockwaves were sent across France, as Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale topped the poll, scooping up a quarter of all
votes compared to just 14% for the ruling party of Francois Hollande, with Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Front de Gauche on a disappointing 6.3%. In Germany the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party had its first MEP elected. Although on just 1% nationally, they were comfortably outpolled by Die Linke on 7.4%. The far right Danish People’s Party also won out as the largest party on 26.6%.
Elsewhere in Europe, it was the left that benefited from the mood of opposition. In Greece, Syriza beat the right wing New Democracy to become the biggest party, while the social democratic opposition in Portugal benefited from the backlash against the governing party and its EU-driven austerity measures. One impressive result was in Spain where Podemos, founded only three months ago, came from nowhere to take 8% of the vote and five MEPs, showing clearly the potential if left parties were to focus on hope rather than fear.
With the EU increasingly seen as promoting an antiworking class agenda, it is only to be expected that voters start to look to oppositional forces. People are intelligent enough to know that to a large extent the European Parliament is a powerless talking shop, while the real power lies with the unelected Commission and the European Central Bank. If the radical left chooses to hold the skirts of the EU nurse for fear of finding something worse, it will invite the very triumph of the far right which it most fears.
Left candidates running against Labour made little impact at either the local or European levels. The “NO 2EU – Yes to Workers Rights” platform managed just 0.2% in the European elections – comfortably less even than the English Democrats or BNP. Other sectarian left parties did even more miserably.
At the local level neither the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC ) nor Left Unity made much progress. One notable exception was the re-election of Councillor Keith Morrell in the Coxford ward of Southampton Council. Keith had been a Labour councillor who was suspended, and subsequently expelled, for opposing cuts which would have meant the closure of a much valued local swimming pool in his ward. He stood as an Independent on the ballot paper – though with the support of TUSC – and was elected with 1,654 votes, a 43% share of the vote. Keith clearly still enjoys the backing of Labour supporters in his ward, and must be readmitted to the Party. His example should give confidence to other Labour councilllors that it is possible to fight back and keep the support of the community.