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Monday, June 14, 2004

Final thoughts

To bring my blogging of the immediate results to a close (this entry being brought to you by the invigorating energising effects of Red Bull, Coca-Cola, & PG Tips (with added sugar).

The final tally: Conservative 27 Labour 19 UKIP 12 Liberal Democrat 12 Green 2 Scottish National Party 2 Plaid Cymru 1 (this is excluding Northern Ireland, which has its own party set-up).

The worst electoral result for Labour since before world war 1 (ie during the period of their rise to major party status in the pre-war years). This record though the Tories are able to trump: the worst electoral result in Conservative history since 1832 and the campaigns around the Great Reform Act.

A turnout of 38.2%, which equates to roughly 16.85 million votes cast. Generally I think this is a "good" result -not from the point of view of any individual parties but from the view of the political landscape as a whole. For the first time in years British politics is engaging people, energising them, and motivating them. Iraq has doubtless played a role there, and Europe is playing another. To be blunt, I hope the politicians sit up and take notice.

There is a third motivator however that is having decides a less rosy impact, and that is racism masked by anti-immigration talk. All the major parties fall into this trap to a greater or lesser extent. So does UKIP. However, in one party it crosses into blatant racism, and that is the British National Party. I am very glad they did not get a seat, but just under 5% of the electorate voted for them (or about 808,000 votes), and increase of 3.9% on their 1999 showing (though they only moved sideways in the local elections, thankfully). So the psychologically important (to them) thresholds of 5% and 1 million votes were not reached, but this shows there is an undercurrent of support for a very racist party. Now, I don't necessarily think that all of those 800K who voted BNP are racist, but people who have been left out. Doubtless some are racist thugs, but their many of their voters will probably be indistinguishable from their mainstream-voting counterparts. Ignoring that fact and branding the voters as crackpots probably raised the anger level of UKIP support that got people out to vote (that's a guess, but I think a reasonable one). We do not want the BNP to get any boosts at all.

Across Europe incumbent governments have been mostly punished - the main exceptions in Greece and Spain where the governments have changed recently and thus are having an electoral honeymoon. Likewise the protest parties have generally done well, taking votes and seats from the more major parties. There is clearly a sense of malaise with 'ordinary' politics in our political landscape. Turnout is mostly down, to about 44% on average, but with many of the larger states falling in the 30s. From what I've read Poland seems to have had the lowest turnout hovering around 20%. What is interesting is that in the UK turnout was up, and up by 14%. What is also noticeable is that althought these have been the European Elections Europe has been mostly absent from the debate. Indeed, the only party in the UK that focused fully on Europe was ... the United Kingdom Independence Party. Perhaps there is a lesson there. The most pro-European party, the Lib Dems, ran a campaign that focused almost entirely on the Iraq war, while Labour avoided the issue concentrating on domestic services, and the Tories dithered. This is apparently a trend across Europe, the main parties talking about Europe are the hardline euroskeptics and anti-EU crowd.

Now, and correct me here for being simple, but I think therein lies the simplest explanation for the hardening of anti-European attitude, in the UK and on the Continent. The only parties that talk regularly about Europe are those opposed to it. They are also the only parties that make clear statements, the rest all equivocate to varying degrees, or go to extremes such as the pro-EU Lib Dems and avoid it altogether.

This raising another question though, though it is only one I can comment on in the UK. Does the hardening of anti-european attitudes, now visibly expressed by the successes of UKIP, mark the signs of a polarising electorate? I think this is likely to be the case. For the anti-EU crowd's part they are already polarised, polarised by not having their voice being heard (and the easiest way to polarise anyone is to ignore them, and tell them that they are crackpots). I suspect that there is a similar polarised pro-EU element which has been hiding behind the facade of the Lib Dems. When (if) we vote on the Constitutional Treaty I think this question will become clearer.

And as for the Treaty, will these elections make one whit of difference to the politicians as they sit around the table in Brussels come Thursday? Unlikely. Perhaps Tony Blair will point to the UK result and say something along the lines of "Well Jacques, you can put in that business of a European Prosecutor but it's all going to be so much hot air in a few months". Perhaps not.

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