The Right Way to Brussels?

On Thursday 4th June, British voters went to the polls to elect 72 British members of the European Parliament. These polls were carried out simultaneously with elections to 34 English local authorities and three mayoral positions.

The elections were widely anticipated to deliver a blow to Gordon Brown’s prime ministership and leadership of Labour, thanks to the recession, the ongoing scandal about MPs”€™ expense claims and disunity amongst Labour MPs. They were also expected to evidence a strong showing for smaller parties, notably Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the British National Party (BNP) of Nick Griffin. These predictions were fulfilled.

The local election results came out on the morning of Friday 5 June. Labour lost a total of 291 councillors all across the country, while the Conservatives accrued 244. Labour no longer controls any local authorities in England. The Liberal Democrats lost ground in their southwesterly strongholds, but gained control of Bristol City Council. The UKIP picked up several county council seats, and the BNP got their first county council seats”€”one each in Lancashire, Leicestershire and Hertfordshire

Another small party, the English Democrats, which campaigns for an English Parliament and against multiculturalism and mass immigration, pulled off a surprise victory in Doncaster, where Peter Davies was elected mayor. He immediately made headlines by promising to remove council funding from the forthcoming “€œGay Pride”€ parade.

Labour’s appalling local results were followed on Sunday night by positively abysmal European results.

Britain’s total number of MEPs has been cut to 72, as part of EU-wide reforms cutting the number of MEPs from 785 to 736, which means that an unprecedented number of parties were chasing fewer seats. 59 of the 72 represent England’s nine regions, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have six, four and three respectively. The UK turnout for the elections was an estimated 35 percent”€”down from 2004’s figure of 38%. The voting is done by proportional representation.

Amongst the most dramatic announcements was Labour’s defeat in Scotland, at the hands of the Scottish National Party, and in Wales, where they were pushed into second place by the Conservatives, the first time Labour has not been the largest party in Wales since 1918 (then it was Lloyd George’s Liberals). Nationally, Labour was beaten into third place by the UKIP and the Greens beat it into fifth place in two regions, while even the Cornish nationalists beat them in Cornwall.

But interesting and important as these events were, what really engrossed many observers were the fates of the UKIP and the BNP. The United Kingdom Independence Party had been written off many times since their Euro breakthrough in 2004, when they had 12 MEPs elected, only to lose three of these in rapid succession, two accused of serious financial crimes (one was imprisoned, and the other case is ongoing), and one (TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk) who left because he was not allowed to lead the party. In recent years, the party had sunk back into what had unfortunately become almost their default state of monomania tempered by infighting. But the party’s fortunes were turned around in just a few months.

For this, great credit must be given to the party’s energetic chairman, Nigel Farage, but also to some within the media and some mainstream politicians, who appear to have decided independently of each other to desist from attacking the party once called by David Cameron a party of “€œfruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.”€ Most notably, the Independent newspaper, a bitter opponent of the UKIP (famously calling them “€œthe BNP in blazers”€) decided they were not so bad after all.

Such interesting developments helped to feed the paranoia and conspiracy-theorizing that is widespread in BNP circles, who tend to view “€œthe old gang”€ parties (a Mosleyite term unwisely often used by the party) as monolithic, and somehow “€œcontrolled.”€ The truth, of course, is messier”€”that racial sentiment generally and the BNP specifically have been so demonized over such a long time that denouncing them has become a moral reflex action”€“like flicking away a settling fly in a spasm of panic and disgust.

Amongst professional politicians and middle class pundits, there may also have been, as Nick Cohen suggested in the Observer on 24 May 2009, a generic “€œsuspicion of popular power,”€ as personified by the working class, the “€œwhite trash,”€ “€œWhite Van Man”€ or “€œchavs”€ so widely derided and feared by the comfortably-off.

Whatever the causes, many within the mainstream parties and mainstream media not only started to talk up the UKIP, but to turn up the pressure on the BNP. It was both instructive and wryly amusing to monitor the gathering campaign, helpfully aggregated on the “€œanti-fascist”€ website.

Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed a united front, telling voters to vote for anyone but the BNP; the Archbishops of Canterbury and York inveighed against them, as did a plethora of musicians, footballers and TV presenters. Gordon Brown co-signed a letter entitled “€œGo to the polls to fight BNP hate”€ to the Guardian along with 55 assorted comedians, comediennes, actors, and others. The BNP’s Greater London Assembly member Richard Barnbrook, who had been invited to a Buckingham Palace garden party in his official capacity, announced that he wanted to bring Nick Griffin as his guest”€”a foolish publicity stunt”€”and then was told his own invitation would be “€œreconsidered”€ if he persisted (he did not). A group of trade unionists set up a brand-new party (annoyingly entitled No2EU) specifically to soak up “€œWhite Van Man”€ support. The mass media, from the upmarket Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph to the downmarket Labour tabloid Daily Mirror, vied with each other to accuse the BNP (no doubt at least sometimes with justification) of a bewildering range of misdemeanours to add to the usual “€œshadowy history”€ (Manchester Evening News)”€”misusing Churchillian iconography, faking advertisements and drunk driving (Daily Mail), hostile takeover of a trade union and financial irregularities (Times), using fake quotes (Sun), trying to take over a school (Times Educational Supplement), cross-burning and setting up youth camps (Sunday Herald), having “€œdodgy fascist pals”€ (Mirror), having “€œabhorrent views”€ on David Beckham (Observer), for causing family rifts (Worcester News), for arriving in the same post with council literature (Essex Gazette), for “€œruining a sunny afternoon”€ (Sunday Mirror), and for “€œpure evil”€ (People).

In the event, the Conservative share of the vote nationally was 28%, UKIP’s 17%, Labour’s 16%, the Liberal Democrats”€™ 14%, the Greens”€™ 9%, the BNP 6%, the SNP 2%, Plaid Cymru 1%, with “€œOthers”€ totalling 9%. The seats were shared out as follows: Conservatives 25 MEPs (plus one affiliated Ulster Unionist in Northern Ireland), Labour 13, UKIP 13, Liberal Democrats 11, Greens, Scottish Nationalists and BNP two (one of these Nick Griffin) each and Plaid Cymru, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party one each.

The election night’s events and the following day’s media made for some entertaining theatre. Griffin’s car was kicked and pelted when he arrived at Manchester Town Hall for the vote counting. When the announcement of his election was made on live TV someone shouted “€œFucking fascists!”€ and then most of the other party supporters left the hall when he began to make the speech customary for all victorious candidates. David Cameron intoned: “€œIt is desperately depressing. It is obviously a depressing day, for all of us. The BNP are completely beyond the pale.”€ His party colleague Liam Fox said he felt “€œgreat sadness.”€ The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg called the BNP a “€œparty of thugs and fascists.”€ The new Welsh Secretary Peter Hain said it was a “€œdreadful stain.”€ Guardian journalist Sunny Hundal noted “€œWhen I was twittering the results last night the whole system nearly went into an aghast meltdown.”€

A striking feature of all the anguished post-mortems by politicians was an almost complete failure to consider that perhaps the BNP vote was due to more than just outrage at the recession or MPs”€™ expenses; it does not appear to have occurred to most mainstream politicians that many people are so worried about immigration that they will vote for a party as disreputable as the BNP, simply because it”€”and only it”€”is willing to talk candidly about this most difficult of subjects.

While it was undoubtedly a cataclysmic night for Labour, an enjoyable night for the Tories, what the BBC called a “€œbrilliant result”€ for UKIP and a breakthrough for the BNP, in terms of vote share the Conservatives are scarcely up on their 2004 levels. Some have argued that with Gordon Brown so unpopular and the recession so deep the Tories should have been even further ahead. And of course the local and European results would not necessarily be replicated in a general election, when turnouts are far higher and voters have different motivations.

The Conservatives will have another headache when they get to the newly-convened European Parliament”€”that of trying to locate a sufficient number of “€œrespectable”€ allies to form a new centre-Right grouping beyond the present European People’s Party bloc, which they believe is too federalist (a derogatory term to British Conservatives). They are already being accused by Channel 4 and the Guardian of consorting with “€œanti-gay”€ and “€œanti-immigrant”€ groups.

Meanwhile, although the UKIP has proved that it has definite staying power in Euro elections, it has still failed to make serious inroads either locally (the party does not even know how many councillors it has) or at Westminster (the single UKIP MP and two UKIP peers were all installed as Conservatives). It is also still essentially a single-issue party, which sees quitting the EU as a kind of panacea; this makes the message simple and allows for unity of purpose, but it can also be a weakness, because it means the party lacks philosophical depth. They also need to clarify exactly what they are trying to achieve within the Parliament buildings; it is ironic that an “€œoutist”€ organization has now spent five years in the maw of Brussels without the EU being (seemingly) any closer to implosion or even far-reaching reform.

Nor should the BNP feel too smug. Breakthrough for them it might have been, and one achieved against the odds, but the party spent an estimated £400,000 on the campaign and Griffin was only narrowly elected (8% of the vote in the North West”€”while his colleague, Andrew Brons, achieved 9.8% in the adjoining Yorkshire & The Humber constituency).

Their share is only up 1.3% on 2004. It remains to be seen whether they can utilize the new EU platforms and financial resources to further normalize the party, and they still have much to learn about presentation. They will probably also have to reexamine their membership policy, which at present restricts membership to white Britons”€”a permanent hostage to fortune.

The BNP is also hoping to form a parliamentary group with parties from other European countries. But although the elections were generally kind to such parties, the picture is patchy”€”the French Front National is down three MEPs to four, the Belgian Vlaams Belang down one to two, and Poland’s two ultra-conservative parties (League of Polish Families and Self-Defence League) lost all 16 of their MEPs (key policies and personnel were absorbed by the conservatives).

They will be cheered by such results as those of Austria’s Freedom Party (up one to two MEPs, with the late Jörg Haider’s BVÖ almost getting one elected too), the Danish People’s Party (up one to two), Finland (the True Finns first MEP), Greece (the People’s Orthodox Rally up one to two), Hungary’s Jobbik (their first three MEPs), Italy (Liga Nord up four to eight), Geert Wilders”€™ Partij Voor Vrijheid with their first four MEPs (although they will not be taking their seats), Romania, where the Greater Romania Party has two and Slovakia, where the National Party has its first MEP.

But there is a basic problem when trying to form international nationalist alliances in an old and storied continent”€”nthe national identities and aspirations are often mutually exclusive. There is also the difficulty of how political terminology normal in one country may “€˜translate”€™ into another language and political tradition. Nevertheless, even if they all end up as independents they will still be able to exert leverage on the larger parties.

Thursday 4 June was a good night for everyone who relishes the pricking of pomposity and who looks forward to ever greater “€œpeople power.”€ But for those who wish to preserve the identities and traditions of Europe, there is still a rocky road to negotiate.



Columnists

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