As Europe becomes a divisive issue again, protest votes are flowing away from the Lib Dems
Two years ago in the 2010 election one in three of those who voted supported parties other than Labour or the Conservatives, the largest protest against the two-party system since the 19th century. The main beneficiaries were the Liberal Democrats, who took nearly a quarter of the vote. But a party of government cannot also be a party of protest. Nor can a party of the Left easily find a home in a coalition with the Right. As Tony Blair put it, if you have opposed a Labour Government for 13 years from the left, and now find yourself governing with the Conservatives, you have a problem.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Lib Dems have plummeted in the polls. Last year the party lost about 700 local council seats. It stands to lose many hundreds more — perhaps more than half of those it holds — in Thursday’s local elections. For the party faces a crisis not just of support, but of identity, one that it cannot hope to resolve if it remains tied to the Tory chariot wheel until the end of the Parliament in May 2015.
The Lib Dem collapse leaves a space for an alternative party of protest. Who will fill it? In 2010 the BNP secured nearly 2 per cent of the vote, by far the highest gained by a far right party in Britain. In the 1930s, in far worse economic circumstances, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists was too weak to put up candidates in general elections; unlike the BNP, it never won a local council seat.
But the BNP is tainted, its voters reluctant to admit their allegiance. UKIP, which won 3per cent of the vote, a million votes, in 2010, is not.
Its voters were not just protesters, but made a clear choice to support a party whose identity was stamped with the Union Jack and a big no to Europe.
In 21 seats the UKIP vote added to that of the Conservatives was higher than the Labour or Liberal Democrat vote. So, ironically, the intervention of an anti-European party might well have handed the balance of power to Britain’s most pro-European party, the Liberal Democrats.
As Liberal Democrat fortunes have declined, so UKIP’s have risen, putting the two neck and neck in recent polls. One YouGov poll last week had UKIP as Britain’s third party.
Until now, UKIP’s progress has been hampered by voters’ reluctance to consider Europe as important as the economy or the public services. But this may be about to change. The rumbling eurozone crisis, which has already had an impact on the British economy, may reach another critical phase as France and Greece go to the polls and Spain struggles with its debt. At the same time unpopular decisions have caused public pressure to mount for Britain to withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights. Pressure for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU cannot lag far behind.
Euroscepticism is becoming an increasingly important component of Englishness. Indeed, in his recent book English Nationalism and Euroscepticism Ben Wellings suggests that Englishness is actually coming to be defined by hostility to the European project, rather than by hostility to devolution.
The European project emphasises the transcending of national sovereignty. In Scotland, the SNP welcomes this, as it sees the EU as an enabler of independence. In England, by contrast, it is seen as a threat to national independence. Yet no big party represents England. The Conservatives, the most obvious candidates, role, are disqualified since, as a Unionist party, they seek to represent the whole of the United Kingdom. As a result there is a disconnection in England between Parliament and the people on Europe.
Into this breach steps UKIP, which favours an English parliament and is the nearest thing we have to an English nationalist party. In the 2009 euro elections, it came second, winning 12 of the 58 English seats at Strasbourg, more than Labour or the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives were in opposition that year and claimed to be eurosceptic, promising a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. With the Conservatives in government, UKIP must believe that it has a strong chance of winning the 2014 euro elections.
Since 1951, when the two main parties secured 97 per cent of the vote between them, their support has been declining, but at a glacially slow rate. However, the introduction of proportional representation for devolved bodies, the London Assembly and the European Parliament and the direct election of mayors have encouraged the habit of voting for parties other than the big two, speeding up the transition towards a multi-party system.
The crisis in the eurozone will accelerate the process still further. It could, indeed, lead to a crisis of confidence in the British Establishment, many of whom favoured Britain’s joining the EU, even if they opposed the euro. If Greece, or another member state leaves the euro — still more, if the eurozone breaks up — the psychological effects on English politics will be profound, comparable perhaps with the collapse of the gold standard in the 1930s or the winter of discontent in 1978-79. Those crises realigned the established parties. The eurozone crisis threatens to undermine them.
For more than 40 years, Europe has been a deeply divisive political issue, raising as it does profound issues of national identity. In 1970, it split Labour; in the 1990s, it almost destroyed John Major’s Conservative Government. It could prove equally divisive in the future, realigning both the political parties and also the nations comprising the UK.
Vernon Bogdanor is Research Professor at the Institute of Contemporary History, King’s College London