As someone who is liable to be in immediate danger should a far right party ever achieve power in the UK (because a smart Fascist always targets the smallest and least popular minorities first, and my trans status is on many government files), I am always disturbed by a rise in the popularity of such parties. At the very best I would expect a UKIP government to rescind the Gender Recognition Act and Equality Act, and require all trans people to return to living in their assigned gender at birth. However, bad as the past week has been for UK politics, I’m actually quite comforted at how much better it was than I had feared.
I’d like to start by looking at the South West region of the European elections. Frankly, I’d been expecting a UKIP landslide. There were good reasons for this. The region already had two UKIP MEPs — it is largely rural and country areas are generally less multi-cultural and more xenophobic than urban ones. Secondly the area has traditionally been a LibDem stronghold, and that party has been dead in the water ever since they opted to enter a coalition with the Tories. I expected mass defections from the LibDems to UKIP. Finally, the government’s handling of the severe flooding in Somerset over the winter proved conclusively that Westminster doesn’t give a monkey’s arse for what happens in this part of the country. Consequently I also expected Conservative voters to defect to UKIP in droves.
The eventual results were much better. UKIP’s share of the vote did increase, but at 10.23% it was one of the smallest rises in the country. The Tories and LibDems did indeed lose seats, but they went to Labour and the Greens, not to UKIP. What this suggests is that there is a limit to the level of anti-EU sentiment in the country, and that people with real political issues to face are less likely to cast a protest vote.
Protest vote? Yes, because despite all of the hand-wringing on social media I’m still fairly certain that many people who voted UKIP really don’t want to see them in power, and won’t vote for them in Parliamentary elections.
Some of the evidence for that comes from the local government elections that took place at the same time. Here’s some data from Cambridge.
So there at least voting for UKIP in a local election was less than 10% of what it was in the European election. That, I suspect, will carry across to elections for Westminster, unless the UK media somehow manages to make the next Parliamentary election all about withdrawal from Europe.
Another reason why UKIP’s success won’t be translated into Westminster is that the UK Parliamentary system is gerrymandered to within an inch of its life. More than half of the seats are so safe there seems to be no point in voting, and two thirds of MPs are elected on less than half of the popular vote in their constituency. UKIP would need a much bigger swing than they got in the European elections to make a significant dent in Westminster politics.
I’m not too worried about the European Parliament either. Most of the newly-elected far right MEPs are anti-EU and won’t be attending many debates. The parties, being xenophobic to a fault, find it very difficult to form alliances with similar groups in other countries. UKIP, on past record, will only actually turn up to vote on things that really matter to them (such as voting against LGBT rights, or voting against sensible environmental policies). I don’t think the far right will actually be able to take control of policy.
The media narrative of the right wing sweeping to power all over Europe needs a bit of examination too. Firstly it isn’t true.
Fascists and ultra-rights @ #EP2014:
— Wolfgang Lünenbürger (@luebue) May 25, 2014
And secondly there’s the question of turnout. Here’s the UK
The real political earthquake – 'can't be bothered to vote' wins landslide, leaves politics in a mess Via @ampp3d pic.twitter.com/nYbBkVDeMh”
— David Pyle (@davidmpyle) May 26, 2014
And here’s Europe:
As well as rise of anti-EU parties, low voter turn out is also a big story: non-voters per country pic.twitter.com/Ixd47Tn0vk via @iptamenos33
— Dan Silver (@DanSilver_07) May 26, 2014
I find it very interesting that three of the countries that voted most heavily for extreme right-wing parties are also countries that had large empires at the start of the 20th Century. I suspect there’s a lesson in that.
On the other hand, Denmark is terrifying. It had a comparatively large turnout, and yet voted strongly for extreme right parties despite not having had an empire for over 1000 years.
So what exactly is going on here? My reading of it is as follows. Firstly, the whole of Europe has been going through a period of economic depression and austerity politics. In such circumstances, people are going to be unhappy with the incumbent politicians. Secondly, in many European countries the media have been busily stoking up resentment against “foreigners”, which could mean immigrants, or could mean other parts of Europe that are portrayed as getting an unfair share of EU benefits. Where this has happened (and where people do not have a healthy suspicion of extreme right-wing parties having been governed by them in living memory), a far right protest vote has done well.
In other areas the protest vote has taken a different form. Scotland is fascinating.
What that shows us is that support for left wing parties is about the same as it is in the rest of the UK, but the anti-Westminster vote is split between UKIP and the SNP. If there is a perceived viable alternative to UKIP, people will vote for it.
Of course it is hard to provide a viable alternative if you don’t have media support, and the media won’t support any minor party that doesn’t present itself as highly controversial in some way. The most depressing thing about last week is that the news teams at the BBC will be congratulating themselves on a job well done because their all-UKIP-all-the-time media coverage generated even more outrage, and therefore more attention, than the Daily Malice.
The real problem, however, is a voting system that leaves people feeling disenfranchised and frustrated. The EU elections in the UK are supposedly run on a system of proportional representation, but it is a deeply flawed system that creates as many problems as it solves.
As an example, here are the issues that faced me in the ballot box. I had just one vote that I could cast, for one party (not a person, a party, though with minor parties you were voting for the person at the top of their candidate list as they were only going to get one seat at most). I had to make a choice between the Green candidate, who I hoped would do well; or the long-serving and popular LibDem candidate who might be the only chance of preventing a UKIP gain. I would have liked to vote for both of them, with a preference for the Green, but that wasn’t possible. (I would also have liked to vote for the Green candidate who was least anti-science, but again that wasn’t possible.)
Also there were four extreme right wing parties on the ballot paper, three of which were worse than UKIP. Two were basically racist thug parties, and the other’s publicity included an astonishing attack on what they claimed was the EU’s “aggressively expansionist” policies towards Russia (poor Mr. Putin is apparently only defending the natural borders of his state). Frankly my interests would be better served if we had no MEP for my region than if any of these four parties won. I would happily have taken Labour or Conservative in preference, and I desperately wanted to rank those four extreme right parties below “No Award”.
Unfortunately the voting system that we have only allows voters to express a single preference in favor of one party. It does not allow any expression of preference, nor does it allow any means to vote against specific candidates.
We are not going to get a better voting system in the UK Parliament. The recent referendum proved that. The two main parties don’t want it because it would threaten their dominance; and the media don’t want it because it threatens the simplistic Us v Them narratives that they love to spin.
Unusually, they have STV (a system very like the Hugo final ballot) for the European elections on Northern Ireland. That’s not because people over there are far more intelligent than the rest of the UK, though the media and party loyalists will continue to tell you that STV is too difficult for the average British voter to understand. It is because, in trying to bring peace to that troubled region, politicians in Westminster understood that they needed to provide a voting system that made as many people as possible feel that they had a say in the democratic process, and which allowed everyone to vote against militant extremists.
If people in the European Parliament are thinking seriously about how they can increase interest in, and participation in, European elections, they could do a lot worse than mandating STV for all elections. I’d be interested to see whether choice of voting systems correlates with turnout across Europe.
I like to think that if we had had STV for the whole of the UK, UKIP would have done a lot less well. They only got a little under 28% of the vote. If people who preferred other parties had been able to rank UKIP last, or below No Award, things could have been very different.
The ability to express a preference against a particular candidate is a very powerful thing in an electoral system. Many of you will soon have the opportunity to vote in a ballot that does allow such an option. Please remember that.