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Two Surprises in Britain’s Elections

Yesterday, Methodist Central Hall hosted a polling place for Britain’s European elections. When I arrived at the Hall, just after noon, the camera crews outnumbered the voters by four to zero. I asked the biggest crew who they were for: Al Jazeera English, come to see how democracy works, it turned out. How were things going? “Eh,” the interviewer grunted. After half an hour only five voters had come and gone — as, by then, had the flacks from Al Jazeera — so I did likewise. And that was par for the course: turnout in 2004 was just 38 percent — in spite of much of Britain voting at the same time in local council elections.  Apart from the blanket newspaper and media coverage, there was almost no sign of any actual campaigning: in many hours of walking around London over the past three days, I’ve seen only two political posters — one for an independent, and the other for the Socialist Party.

The voting system in the European elections gives complexity a bad name: the entire U.K. is divided into twelve regions, and each party puts up a maximum of ten candidates in each region to fill Britain’s 78 seats in the European Parliament. When votes are counted, seats are allocated between parties in proportion to their total, and to candidates in proportion to their place on the party list. The net result is that not a single voter in Britain will actually be voting for the representative they prefer: they will be voting for a party and for the hierarchy of candidates as arranged by the parties. No wonder the excellent Conservative Member of the European Parliament, Daniel Hannan, has described his selection at the top of the list in South-East England as a victory for himself and a defeat for democracy.

Hannan is right, and not just about the European electoral system. With local government now responsible for raising only about a quarter of its own revenue, there’s not much incentive for voters to take it seriously. And few in Britain have much time for the European Parliament, which has little power and exercises even less responsibility. The result is that local and European elections have turned into an enormous opportunity to send a message to the government of the day (and, increasingly, the opposition). And that is what is likely to happen today. The message for the main parties is simple: an overwhelming majority of the British public is not excited enough about them to bother voting, and a near-majority of those who do bother will vote for one of the minor parties — either the nationalist parties in Wales or Scotland, the Greens, the British National Party (BNP), or the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

If this election has a surprise it will be how well UKIP does.  Every journalist, politician, and think-tanker I’ve talked with has said the Tories will take a lead over the other parties. But every one of them has also followed that by saying, identically, that UKIP will cut into the Tory margin of victory and come a clear second, pushing the Liberal Democrats and Labour into a bitter struggle for the irrelevancy of fourth place. Together, that means that the Tories — a moderately Eurosceptic party — and UKIP — a very Eurosceptic one — are likely to poll almost 50 percent of the vote. That is an enormous warning to the other parties that there are no votes to be had by sidling closer to Brussels, and to David Cameron and the Conservative Party that any straying toward Europe will be noticed and punished come the general election.

There is real anger here about the role the EU is assuming in British life, and the seeming lack of interest the main parties have displayed in putting an end to it. Traditionally, Europe is a shouting issue but not a voting one in British politics: these elections suggest that the anger is coming out in the fragmentation of the political system and the rise of the minor parties.

The other thing that has surprised me in the past week here is the division between some in the political class and the public as a whole about the parliamentary expenses scandal that has hit all the major parties in Britain over the past month. One veteran newspaperman confessed that he simply didn’t understand what the fuss was about. And it seems that quite a few politicians shared that incomprehension: Brown’s stumbling handling of the scandal, which has hit the Tories just about as badly as Labour, has done him tremendous damage and led to the surprise resignation of another minister, Hazel Blears, on Wednesday.

To my mind, the answer is simple. The British political elite have forgotten what the British public still  partly remembers: that Britain invented the concern of disinterested public political service, that it defined high standards of financial honesty in politics, and that both of these justified the British faith in parliamentary sovereignty, and in the Commons as a body that genuinely sought the public good, not its own enrichment. The expenses scandal symbolizes the obvious failure of the political class to live up to ideals that have been thoroughly abused, but which still command public respect; the degradation of the Commons by Europe is another assault from a different direction on the same faith. And that is what the results of today’s elections are likely to show: that the British public is tired of it. It may not know what it wants — and some of the disillusionment will come out in ways, such as support from alienated Labour voters for the BNP, that are distinctly undesirable — but it is quite fed up with what it had got.



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