In just a few weeks time, Britain will be going to the polls to elect new members for the European Parliament. These elections, though, are a curious occurrence. Voter turnout is especially low for one. More importantly, how voters view these elections differ from others.
Labour’s dismal performance in 2009 was not a reaction to the party’s stance on the Lisbon treaty, or how the public viewed Labour’s record on the EU. Rather, voters turned out to send the Government a message. People were hurting and angry in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, with the economy in a recession for the first time since before the arrival of Brit Pop. The end of ‘boom and bust’ was no more.
In the post election fall-out, strategists from each of the three main parties will be looking at how to appeal to protest UKIP voters. This will not be easy.
In the initial stages of this year’s campaign, the media has focused on the surge in support for the anti-EU, anti-political establishment party, UKIP. This has played out in the media as an extension to UKIP’s success in the last year or so, which has seen the party have a succession of good performances in local elections, and in a number of Westminster by-elections.
So, does that mean if projected polls are true and UKIP wins the European elections in May, it would represent a fundamental shift in the party system? Most likely no, but there is still no room for complacency from the main political parties.
Why is this? The European elections must be viewed first and foremost as protest elections. There is a tendency among the electorate to approach their choice in party according to this idea.
The European elections are not the general election. The vast majority of people who vote, and a considerable number of those who don’t, can identify their local MP. This is not the case for MEPs. There is an awareness gap about the role of MEPs and the work they do among the general public.
A low profile in the UK makes MEPs seem irrelevant in the eyes of the vast number of voters. This is backed up by a recent ComRes poll that found 80 per cent of individuals feel their vote makes more difference in a UK general election than in the European elections.
This protest attitude reflects the broader issue of the public’s relationship with politics in general, and those who ‘do politics’ in Westminster. The recent expenses scandal with former Culture Secretary Maria Miller demonstrated that the original expenses scandal which broke in the last Parliament is still a raw issue for the public. It feeds into the idea that ‘politicians are only out for themselves’, neglecting the concerns of the wider public.
But it’s not just about expenses, voters seem to always have viewed the EU elections as a vehicle for protest. In the 2004 European elections, ‘protest parties’ received 30 per cent of the vote, and in 2009 this figure stood at 39 per cent. The question is how high the protest vote will be this time.
This is where UKIP have proven so successful. The party is incredibly popular with voters who are willing to cast a protest vote, those who feel disillusioned with politics. UKIP plays to voters who feel their concerns are not being adequately addressed, whether immigration, the EU, or access to public services. UKIP has also been able to largely dominate the protest vote, highlighted by the fact support for the BNP has collapsed, who have previously played this role.
What, then, does this mean post-May 22?
The key point is that UKIP support is likely to maintain at around its current trend of between 12-14 per cent for a general election, as opposed to the 29 per cent or so UKIP are projected to receive in the EU elections according to YouGov (4th May). We will no doubt see voters return their preference to the major parties, although the rate of return may not be as great as in previous years, a symptom of disillusionment among the electorate arguably higher than in recent years.
In the post election fall-out, strategists from each of the three main parties will be looking at how to appeal to protest UKIP voters. This will not be easy. Whilst voters are likely to return to their traditional voting patterns given the fact they consider their vote to be worth more at a general election, this is likely to be much harder to achieve in the current climate.
These voters will not be won over by casting UKIP was ‘fruitcakes’, or any other bakery product for that matter. Doing so will only exacerbates the problem, as protest voters see it as a manifestation of the political establishment’s dismissive attitude towards their concerns.
The problem is especially acute for the Conservative Party, however, in the medium term Labour must address the issue of solidifying support among its traditional working class voters. Both parties must consider how to re-engage with voters and non-voters alike.
In the meantime, UKIP will happily reap some electoral rewards. The major parties still have time to address protestors concerns about politics, but this time must be spent wisely, before the protest party becomes the norm.