After hanging around whilst the Western Isles completed their counting,1 we now have all the results for the European elections. As with the locals, the broad result was a transfer of votes and seats from the governing parties to Labour, UKIP and others, though in a more spectacular fashion.
The clear winners of the election, both in terms of votes and seats. This result was not unexpected, but the magnitude of UKIP’s victory has caught some people, including myself, by surprise. With a net gain of eleven MEPs, an eleven percentage points increase in vote share and representation in Scotland for the first time, Farage’s purple warriors are right to be delighted with the results and entitled to celebrate.
The big question for UKIP now is whether they can build on this success to gain representation at Westminister, a prize which has so far proved elusive. Whilst the general election is still a year away, it is possible that UKIP could win the seat of Newark in next week’s by-election. Although Farage is trying hard to manage expectations and not assuming that victory is certain, the party has already caused upsets in two by-elections (Wythenshawe and Sale East and South Shields) and come within two thousand votes of victory in a third (Eastleigh). With the EU results still fresh in voters’ minds, they might decide to dish out another drubbing for the main parties.
On the face of it, Labour had a reasonably good day at the polls, with a net gain of seven MEPs and close to ten percentage points increase in vote share. However, starting from a low base meant that the party only ended up with one more MEP than the Conservatives, and they were behind UKIP in both measures of performance (vote share and MEPs).
Miliband is still some distance from where he needs to be to convince voters that he should end up running the country after the next general election. Even more embarrassing are reports that UKIP topped the poll in Doncaster, which includes the Labour leader’s constituency.2 It’s too late for Labour to change leader now, and in any event many of the potential replacements have left front-line politics, but they don’t seem to be making as much progress as they should be under Miliband.
It wasn’t a particularly good set of results for David Cameron, with a net loss of seven MEPs, although he can take some consolation from the fact that the party’s share of the vote only declined by a small amount, and by far less than the Liberal Democrats. Moving down to third place behind Labour and UKIP is somewhat embarrassing, but not so bad that Cameron needs to worry about being deposed by his fellow MPs. Provided that the party holds Newark - as a party stronghold, defeat would be a minor disaster - Cameron is highly likely to lead the Conservatives into the next election.
The Liberal Democrats results can be summed up in two words: total disaster. The party was almost completely wiped out, with a 50% fall in vote share translating into a loss of ten MEPs, with only one seat held in the entire country. In the North West we lost Chris Davies, who was a hard-working MEP and in my experience the only one who made any attempt to engage with constituents by replying to correspondence.
As expected, grumblings over Nick Clegg’s leadership have continued, although senior figures such as Menzies Campbell and Tim Farron have been more openly supportive than they were after the local election results. No one has stepped forward with a leadership challenge yet, so Clegg should still be safe, though he does seem to have gone from hero to zero in the space of four years. I suspect sales of ‘I agree with Nick’ t-shirts have also tailed off.
A mixed bag of results for the other parties, with the Greens gaining one MEP, the SNP almost unchanged and the BNP losing two seats and therefore all of their representatives. The oddities of the electoral system allowed Plaid Cymru to hang on to their solitary MEP, despite obtaining 111,000 votes to the 1 million cast for the Liberal Democrats.
Looking at the wider picture, the situation in the UK appears to have mirrored that in other EU countries, with mainstream parties losing ground to those on the extremes of the political spectrum. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the disenchantment with politics (UK turnout of 34.1% is a national disgrace), austerity and mass youth unemployment.3
If you’ve made it this far, you’ll notice that, unlike many of the mainstream media, I’ve deliberately avoided the temptation to suggest what the results would be if voting patterns were repeated in a general election. This is because European elections are probably the least reliable guide to who will win the general election, for three reasons:
- The voting system is different - you vote for a party rather an individual (unless there is an independent candidate), and the method of translating votes into seats also differs. The existence of multi-member constituencies also complicates any comparison.
- Parties such as UKIP have steadily increased their representation at an EU level, but have yet to win a seat in a general election.
- The general election is over a year away. If a week is a long time in politics, then a year must be an eternity. This is plenty of time for the economic recovery to take hold (or fade away), for a party leader to be brought down (unlikely as a result of a direct challenge, but you never know what skeletons are hiding in their cupboards) or a major external event to occur.
So if you’re worried about Nigel Farage becoming our next prime minister, you can rest easy at night knowing that this is unlikely to happen.
Tune in a week on Friday for coverage and analysis of the Newark by-election.
The Western Isles refuse to work - including counting votes - on a Sunday, which has lead to some rather stinging criticism on Twitter. ↩
Doncaster North is traditionally a Labour stronghold, though the party’s share of the vote fell below 50% at the last general election. ↩
If you think youth unemployment is a problem in the UK, look at the figures for Spain and Greece (both over 50% at the time of writing). ↩