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Europe: ‘We blame the government – whoever they are’

The election results reveal that many of those who do bother to vote are at least as alienated as those who don't.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Summing up the negative public mood surrounding the US presidential election, the satirical magazine The Onion recently led with the headline ‘Many Americans Still Unsure Whom to Vote Against’. The elections to the European Parliament suggest that Europe’s voters have decided to vote against all the established parties – starting with whichever one happens to be in power where they are.

Polling in all of the newly expanded European Union’s 25 member states was, in the words of the BBC correspondent in Brussels, ‘a tale of low turnouts and of national governments being hammered across Europe’. The overall turnout, at around 44 per cent, is expected to be a record low for the EU as a whole.

In the UK, the New Labour government followed up its heavy defeat in last week’s local elections, where it came third overall with about a quarter of the vote – described by one senior party member as ‘a good kicking’ – with another pasting in the Euro-polls, receiving just 22 per cent of votes cast. Both Tony Blair and his Labour critics claimed that the votes were a reaction against the war in Iraq, with Blair insisting that this would only be short-term and adding that ‘These things happen to governments’ between general elections.

But the scale of the setbacks for Europe’s governing parties cannot be put down to run-of-the-mill mid-term blues. Nor is it all about Iraq. No doubt the war has intensified disaffection among many Labour activists. But there is little to suggest that what is happening in Iraq is the decisive factor among the wider public in Britain.

Step back for a moment and put things in a European context. French President Jacques Chirac was seen as the figurehead of international opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Yet his UPM party was trounced in the Euro-elections with just 16.6 per cent of the vote. It was a similar story in Germany, where the Social Democratic Party of avowedly anti-war Chancellor Gerard Schroeder received just 21.5 per cent of the vote – the SPD’s worst result since it was reformed after the fall of the Nazis. Do these results suggest that the French and German public are pro-war on Iraq? Hardly. And nor should Blair’s problems be passed off as a reaction to his support for President Bush’s Iraqi adventure.

These anti-government votes, cast almost regardless of which party happens to be in office, signal something different from the normal mid-term disquiet. They are fickle reflections of a more profound public disengagement from the political process, parties and institutions. There is widespread concern among the political elites about high abstention rates in recent elections. What these results reveal is that many of those who do bother to vote are at least as alienated as those who don’t.

It is not a protest vote against a particular government or policy. It is more like a vote against politics itself. Let nobody try to claim that these developments can still be understood in the old Left v Right political framework. Both sides of that divide stand discredited and directionless today. Thus New Labour’s problems did not lead to any major breakthrough for the opposition Tories; they might have ‘won’ the Euro-elections but their share of the vote actually fell from 35.8 to around 27 per cent this time. For the first time, the two major parties have secured less than half the votes cast between them (1).

The one thing pundits seem certain about is that the Euro-sceptics have done well across the EU, with the UK Independence Party winning 12 seats with around 16 per cent of the vote. But the striking success of the UKIP, with its ragbag of Tory cast-offs and orange-hued celebrities, should not be interpreted as a surge of xenophobic anti-European sentiment in Britain (regardless of how the English feel about the French football team). Rather, Official Europe has become in many people’s minds the symbol of distant, unaccountable, disembodied power.

Anti-EU feeling has nothing to do with antagonism towards the Europe which millions of Britons dream of emigrating to. It is a more intense version of the feelings of alienation people feel towards their own national governments and institutions today. This is not simply a question of geographical distance, but a feeling of social and political isolation. The UKIP may have done best in provincial and rural areas, but it also won a Euro-seat in sophisticated London, where it did not bother campaigning.

The extent of the disconnection between governments and the governed in Europe is perhaps clearest in the new member states of the EU. Far from bursting with enthusiasm for their first Euro-elections, many of these fresh-faced voters seem even less interested than the old hands. The provisional results suggested that turnout across the 10 new member states would be just 28 per cent. In Poland, the governing party won less than 10 per cent of the votes on a turnout of under 20 per cent! In the Czech Republic the ruling Social Democrats received 8.8 per cent. And so it goes on.

(The only government party that did respectably well were the Spanish Socialists, which according to provisional results won 43.7 per cent of the vote, while the conservatives took about 40.8 per cent. But they have only recently been elected as a backlash against the longstanding Popular Party government, and have not yet been tarred with the same brush. Give them time. See Spain: a victory for peace, or for defeatism?, by Mick Hume.)

The entire political class of Europe is now faced with stark evidence of its isolation. Yet in a country such as Britain, all it can offer in response is an outburst of paranoia and panic about the UKIP (which only makes that party a more attractive receptacle for disaffected votes), and wildly exaggerated warnings about the threat of the far-right British National Party. Telling grown-ups to ‘vote – or else the bogeymen will get you!’ was never likely to prove a winning ticket.

Is this good news for those of us who have long argued the need for an alternative to the mainstream parties? Unfortunately, it seems not. Of course it would not be a ‘good thing’ if more people wanted to vote for Blair or the Tories’ Michael Howard. But at the same time, there is little to celebrate about a Europe-wide display of the depth of passive anti-political feeling and cynicism today. Being pissed off with what’s on offer is entirely understandable. However, such a negative attitude towards the very idea of meaningful politics can hardly be good news for those who favour political action for social change. In these circumstances, just about everything is off the agenda.

Many voters in Europe seem to have made up their minds about what they are against. That only makes it more urgent to start a proper debate about what our societies should be standing for.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

(1) Leaders rue Euro poll ‘disaster’, BBC News, 14 June 2004; In depth: Vote 2004, BBC News, 14 June 2004

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Topics Politics

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