Wednesday 4 February 2009

Election? What Election?

In June of this year- not that you'd notice- the entire European parliament is up for election.

It is, as usual, a matter of total indifference to the voters of the United Kingdom.

One wonders why this is, since like it or not, a good deal of legislation that affects the British people, is now decided in that august body.

To be honest, this post isn't about the rights or wrongs of that, it's about this much ignored elections, elections that will be much ignored until about a month before they happen, then all parties will make some sort of statement on what they expect to get out of them and then claim some sort of victory or otherwise depending on the result.

The question is- what sort of results SHOULD we expect and what will the results mean?

Well, the first thing to remember is that most voters don't really know why they're voting at all. Psephologists call these sorts of elections 'Second order elections'. What this really means, is that the voter is less concerned with the outcome of the election he or she is actually voting for, than actually making a point.

By-elections, of course have traditionally had that function. A voter knows that only his constituency is affected by the result. So it gives him or her a chance to give the government or any other party a wake up call. He doesn't have to think 'If I vote for this candidate, then I might end up with X government'. The government isn't going to change. So instead, he can send a message.

And that essentially, is what the British voter uses the European elections for.

The first European elections took place in 1979, a couple of months after Margaret Thatcher had won the General Election. These first elections took place under a simple first past the post system, indeed the UK was the only place in Europe that it did. The consttituencies were vast in size, if course, and the result in terms of seats heavily skewed in favour of the larger parties. Winner takes all skews 646 seats, it skews 81 seats on a much larger scale.

Basking in the glow of having defeated the wearied government of James Callaghan, the Tories took 60 of the 78 seats available in mainland Britain. Labour scraped 17 and the SNP took Highlands and Islands. The Tories generally had done better everywhere than they had in the General Election only weeks before. They even beat Labour in Scotland and even won Liverpool. The SNP victory in Highlands and Islands was in stark contrast to its debacle a few weeeks earlier, when it had been squeezed by the voters from 11 seats down to 2.

And there were no Liberals elected at all.

In Northern Ireland, it was simpler yet. A system of Single Transferrable voting, made the whole thing a poplarity contest. The province voted in a way that belied the ascendancy of the more moderate UUP over the extremist DUP; Ian Paisley topped the poll with John Hume of the SDLP and John Taylor of the UUP following demurely behind him.

Did this election say much? Not especially. It was straight after a General Election. It meant nothing.

So when the UK came to vote again in 1984 what happened?
The Tories fell back and Labour advanced. 45 Tories and 32 Labour MEPS were elected.
But of course, it doesn't really mean anything. It showed the election as what it was- a huge National by-election. Labour had done considerably better than it done in the 79 Euro-Elections and better than the 1983 General Election- but in an election where the voters didn't need to worry what they said, they were still behind. And the Lib/SDP Alliance had failed to take a seat.

So the conclusion a political commentator could have drawn then was- the Tories were still on course then to easily win the next election.
Which is what happened.

The next European elections in 1989, really emphasised the fact that voters treated these elections as a mass form of protest voting. The old Lib/SDP alliance had collapsed electorally and the Liberal Democrats had not yet stabilised that part of the political spectrum. Thus the Green party marched to take second place in over twenty seats. And beat the Liberal democrats in all but one seat. The Tories lost Thirteen seats to Labour.

Were they a shock to the Tories? Possibly. Though I'm not sure they really made a difference to them. The Tories were starting to lose by-elections on substantial swings across the country and this result simply confirmed that a General Election would be close. But of course, it also showed that a good many voters felt none of the parties were talking their language. These voters wouldn't vote Green in a General Election, but they had made their point.

Of course, if anyone had assumed that the result showed Labour on course to win the next election, they'd be wrong. In other words, it showed just how much of a protest vote these elections are.

The 1994 Euro elections, were a different story.

A Labour landslide.
In fact, these results were slightly closer to what the actual General Election result would be than many believed at the time. Though they were of course, still an overstatement of what the voters really thought. 62 Labour, 18 Tories, 2 Liberal Democrats and 2 SNP.
Labour won areas like Herford and Shropshire, Norfolk, Lincolnshire where it would still be narrowly behind on polling day in 1997.
But the elections did show clearly the way the wind was blowing.

And of course, the last two European elections have had another angle.
They've been elected by Proportional Representation. Not, it is a true, a type of PR that gives the voters much choice in the individuals chosen by the parties, but the voter doesn't have to think tactics. He really just has to go in and think 'What do I want to do with my vote?'

So what were the voters saying in 1999? They elected 36 Tories, 29 Labour , 10 Liberal Democrats, 3 UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), 2 Greens, 2 SNP, 2 Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalist) and the same three parties as normal from Northern Ireland.

Well, judging by the results of the subsequent election, they weren't saying they wanted a Tory government. Or that they didn't want a Labour government. And the resukts in fact, show the Tories ahead of Labour, though not hugely. What is noticeable is how well the minor parties did. Though of course, voters were no doubt more inclined to vote for them, seeing as they had a chance of getting elected.

The voters seemed to be saying that they didn't trust Labour in Europe, didn't much like Europe generally, but would vote Labour back into power.
That's the only way we CAN read it, because that's what happened.

And what did the voters say in 2004?

They elected 27 Tories, 19 Labour, 12 Liberal Democrats, 12 UKIP, 2 Greens, 2 SNP, 1 Plaid Cymru and the 3 Northern Irish MEPs.

Now the number of seats available had dropped from 87 to 78, but still, the Tories hadn't advanced relatively. In real terms they'd slipped back, just less than Labour. It was the UKIP advance that stood out.

The results accorded with what the next General Election showed. The electorate were tired of Labour, but didn't like the Tories. Labour UNpopularity didn't mean corresponding Tory popularity.

Quite clearly, even under PR, if the Tories are looking likely to win an overall majority in the next General Election, they need to be substantially leading Labour in terms of seats after the next European elections in June.

So the question is; what sort of result should we expect?

Well, firstly the implosion of UKIP looks to be on the cards. I can't see them hold much more than three or four seats. So one would assume that's an advance gifted to the Tories...
Except maybe not. The collapse of UKIP and its factions in the London Assembly gifted the BNP a seat. I would say there is a very real danger the BNP could win one to two seats in these elections, if the UKIP collapse is as significant as I suspect it might be.

The question then I guess becomes of how much further can the Labour and Liberal Democrat votes slip? On the face of it, they seem to pretty much scraping core voters only in these elections.

Labour losing seats would not necessarily bode badly for them. But the thing is, they don't have many to lose. We can be certain the Tories WILL advance, because UKIP are sitting ducks, but what really matters is that lead by the Tories over Labour.
The only result which will show that the Tories are indeed on course to win the next election outight, will be if the electorate show that in an election where they can send out whatever message they like, they want to put a cross in the blue box, and not any of the other protest boxes. The Tories need to be looking at at least 35 seats.
Anything less, and the outcome of the next election is looking like a hung paliament.

For Labour and the Liberal Democrats, even holding their own will be a good night. For the Liberal Democrats, more so than Labour. Because it will confound the predictions that they face decimation at the next election.

Because these elections WILL say something. They won't tell us that Labour are unpopular, we already know that. What they will tell us, is if the Tories are popular. Or if, come polling day, a good many people may well vote for them only because they see it as the lesser of two evils.

But what my gut feeling is that we'll see from these elections is proof of what most of us already know.

Yes, the Tories will win the next election. But not because anyone wants them. That's the amazing thing. They'll win because this government is probably the most hated and useless government we've ever had. And because of that, an opposition which is worse than useless is going to win because they're the only choice we've got.

But increasingly it seems to me that the real message voters keep sending out is; If we had other choices, we'd choose them. But we don't. Not really.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do you actually understand how "Europe" is constituted? I mean, the actual differences between the EU, EEA, European Commission, European Courts and all the other Euro-stuff..? Do you understand why they shift buildings from Brussels to Strasbourg constantly? That would be like the British Parliament moving from London to Birmingham and back several times a year...

In answer to my questions, I don't, and I don't see "Europe" being founded on very much of a democratic basis at ALL.

It seems to be a political beast, whose head's been grafted onto a coal-and-agriculture exchange club...

As for Maggie: I do love her. I don't agree with many of her policies but the woman herself I thought was fantastic. I'm having a great time leafing through The Downing Street Years...

Take it easy...