Forget Ukip and these staggeringly irrelevant European elections
The party is poised for a second-place finish … exactly where it came in last time around. Let’s not get swept up by the rhetoric
by James Ball
21 May 2014
In newsrooms across the country, articles chronicling Ukip’s rise and triumph are being prepared: whether it’s “the irresistible rise to power”, “Why the Conservatives must listen to Ukip” or “Ukip versus the Westminster bubble”, we’re getting ready to read a lot into the election results when they come on Sunday.
Unless you’ve sat out the run-up to Thursday’s elections in a hermetically sealed bunker – and no one would blame you if you had – you’ll have spotted that Ukip was the only show in town. It’s not hard to see why: what’s the point in writing about the same old face-off between three uninspiring major party leaders when you’ve got Ukip, with their (superficial) challenge to the elite, their flamboyant leadership and, ah, colourful candidates?
The problem starts when we begin to believe the hype. Ukip is a bubble so over-inflated it makes the London property market look like a solid investment. The Ukip soap bubble is certainly big and certainly shiny, but it’ll still pop as soon as it’s given a good nudge. But how have we got here?
The simple, bald fact is this: from a UK perspective the European elections are a staggering irrelevance. Despite Ukip’s oft-debunked claim that 75% of our laws are made in Brussels, the European parliament has minimal direct relevance on most issues our parties campaign on, or that voters care about.
The European commission [ie, an unelected body of foreign bureaucrats] proposes most European legislation; national governments (including the UK’s) have considerable say over what happens [ever heard of qualified majority voting?]; and the European parliament often [usually] serves essentially as a rubber stamp. Given that both Ukip and the Conservatives sit in fringe groupings within the parliament, the impact of the UK’s vote on Thursday on political decision making in Europe will be close to zero.
The parties notice this, and that’s why their campaigns are essentially nonsense. The Conservatives are brazenly, and entirely falsely, presenting a vote for them on Thursday as a vote for an in/out referendum; Ukip is doing much the same. Both know they are talking nonsense: it’s for MPs in Westminster to grant such a referendum. MEPs have absolutely no power to do so.
The European election is a mummer’s farce, so it’s no surprise to see clowns performing well in the polls. When it comes to a general election, though, Europe drops dramatically down voters’ lists of concerns (it’s usually about 16th), while the UK economy, the NHS, crime and everyday issues rise to the fore – and minority party vote shares plummet.
Even this week, though, Ukip’s rise is less assured than you might think from the coverage. Lest we forget, Ukip came second in the 2009 European elections, securing around 16.5% of the vote (it peaked in polls ahead of election day at around 19%).
This time around it is helped by the near-total implosion of the (far nastier) [not ‘nastier’ just more ineptly led] BNP, which previously polled 6.5%, securing the party two MEPs. Working off a rough assumption that Ukip, though more ‘moderate’, will pick up the BNP’s anti-immigration votes, that gives it a rough base of 22%-23% from which to start. At the moment it is polling around 27% – hardly a surge.
It is entirely possible that come this weekend – five years and a million column inches later, Ukip will have surged from second place in an irrelevant election in 2009 to … second place in an irrelevant election in 2014, albeit with a few extra MEPs to collect lavish salaries and allowances, while turning up to vote less than any other UK party.
Minor parties often surge between UK general elections. In 1981, less than 18 months from a general election, the SDP-Liberal alliance polled more than 50% of the vote; but at the 1983 general election they secured just 23 seats. A week before the 2010 general election Cleggmania was in full swing and a nation’s commentariat wondered whether the party might even win more seats than Labour. As it transpired, it lost five seats.
And what of Ukip, just 12 months after its 16.5% triumph at the 2009 European elections? The party polled nationally at 3.1% and failed to secure a single seat.
Ukip is a cargo-cult political party: one man who connects well with voters trumpeting a half-baked, barely factually coherent stance on a single issue most voters don’t care that much about. Under scrutiny the whole thing will – once again – collapse.
The one man who knows this more than any other is, of course, Nigel Farage. Faced with his party’s best chance to win a parliamentary seat in a decade – a by-election, timed alongside the European elections when his salient issue dominates the press, in the wake of a Westminster corruption scandal and in a rural Tory-leaning constituency – he decided … not to stand.
Farage knows he’s not leading a serious challenge. It’s time the rest of us worked that out too.