Little Earthquake

The media and Twitter are full of talk today of UKIP earthquakes and the end being nigh for the major parties, but I’m actually encouraged by the European election voting figures for the UK. Leaving aside the lamentable 34% turnout, look at the changes in vote share from 2009—the second column—in these results at the BBC:

Vote 2014 Europe: Great Britain

Over half of UKIP’s gain in voting share has come from the BNP, the English Democrats, the Christian People’s Alliance and NO2EU, not from the major parties; those four parties between them lost 8.29% of the total share. The remaining 2.7% will have come from the Tories, most likely. UKIP have consolidated the angry xenophobic vote that was always there, but which previously was distributed among UKIP, the Tories and several fringe right-wing/Euroskeptic parties.

Labour has increased its share of the vote substantially, at the expense of the Liberal Democrats and marginally the Greens. In 2009, before the 2010 general election, the Lib Dems were considered a centre-left party. Few who thought of them that way will vote for them again.

I don’t see any evidence here that the mythical “2010 Labour voter who is now voting UKIP” exists in any significant numbers. The voter who feels today that the UK has too many immigrants and should get out of Europe would hardly have been voting for pro-immigration, pro-EU Labour a mere four years ago.

On the basis of these results, and Labour’s domination of the English Council elections held simultaneously on Thursday (where there was a 5% swing against UKIP), it looks like a Labour victory in the 2015 general election is a good bet—unless the Tories agree to a Faustian pact with UKIP, which both parties deny they will do.

Even if they wanted to, they would find it politically difficult. Because their share of the vote has grown largely by absorbing votes that formerly went to the BNP and the like, it’s now much harder for UKIP to paint themselves as some sort of reasonable middle, or to meet the Tories there. The Tories are also painted into a corner: they can’t form an electoral pact with UKIP, because to do so would be to embrace their inner “swivel-eyed loon”. Any attempt to make overtures to the far right would alienate them from voters on the centre-right, while gaining them little, because most of UKIP’s new votes in the EU election weren’t Tory defectors.

In 2010 the Lib Dems had grown strong enough to split the vote on the left and produce a hung parliament. But if any major party was being punished by voters on Thursday, it wasn’t Labour, it was the Lib Dems; and the punishing being done wasn’t about immigration and the EU, it was about being in coalition with the Tories. Their centre-left votes will now go to Labour, while on the right UKIP will undermine the Tory vote. Under first-past-the-post, that makes Labour victories in individual seats far more likely than in 2010. Ed Miliband could be in Number 10 this time next year.

Labour and Miliband should refuse any demands on the basis of last week’s supposed “earthquake” to agree to an in-or-out EU referendum after the next general election, because they have absolutely nothing to gain by it. Indeed, that’s about the only thing I can imagine them doing that would drive (some) voters back to the Lib Dems, who would then be the only unambiguously pro-EU voice among the major parties.

So to my own surprise, I’m actually optimistic now, and paradoxically it’s because my preferred voting system was rejected in the 2011 referendum. If the UK electorate had voted for AV, the Tories would have had a strong chance of winning the next general election outright, because UKIP preferences would have flowed to them. But they didn’t. Next year will be the first time ever that I’ll be grateful to be voting under first-past-the-post.

26 May 2014 · Politics