Monday, June 8, 2009

Hell, handbasket, European Parliament...

This blog is of course a place for sober, objective analysis of political events, drawing on decades of rigorous thought by political scientists, sociologists and economists.

But part of me today simply wants to ask: has everyone gone nuts?

The British electorate, in its fury at our MPs' light touch expenses regime, has rewarded the UK Independence party, led by Nigel Farage, with the second highest vote share of the British parties. Farage cheerfully claimed to have ripped off the European taxpayer to the tune of 2 million euros in expenses during his mandate in the European Parliament. Italians, in their consternation at the sordid scenes at Silvio Berlusconi's Sardinian villa, responded by giving the old letch 2.7 million personal preference votes. Hungarians decided to blame their troubles on Roma (the minority not the Italian football team), while the Dutch (or at least the 15% of them who voted for Geert Wilders) think it's all the Muslims' fault.

The kind of collective hysteria has been given a name by political scientists: second order voting. This is the well documented phenomenon whereby voters use elections they regard as less important - local, regional and European polls usually - to cast a vote of protest against the incumbent government, and perhaps mainstream politics in general. These results are therefore an example of the electorate letting off steam, but we can expect them to return to the fold in the 'real' elections.

I'm not so sure.

There's evidence a plenty - I've just been writing about it, in a chapter for a book in Palgrave's Developments in European Politics series - that European electorates are more and more likely to vote in the same rebellious way in national elections. Voters are less likely to join or identify with political parties, more likely to change their vote between elections, and - ominously - more likely to support fringe, extremist parties, than at any time since the 1950s. Right-wing populist parties hostile to immigrants and (for those in the EU) the European Union are winning sizeable shares of the vote in the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Italy, France, Belgium, Norway, and Switzerland.

Oh, and now, in the UK too. It's no joke if the BNP can win two seats in the European Parliament with an electoral system that tends to work against small, marginal parties. The mainstream elites probably think that the BNP and UKIP leadership are oddballs and fanatics incapable of holding political office. They are right. But this doesn't mean that we can ignore these results. If people are angry enough to vote for these people, it means politicians have to start taking people's problems a bit more seriously.

It's probably no coincidence that the two BNP MEPs have been elected in industrial areas of the north of England. These areas were abandoned by the Conservatives 30 years ago, and abandoned by Labour 15 years ago. New Labour deliberately cultivated middle England, assuming 'old Labour' had no option but to vote for Blair anyway. Now middle England has deserted Labour, and the heartlands are edgy too.

Labour cannot really recover in time for the next election, but the work of rebuilding has got to start if progressive politics is going to survive in Britain. And that means two things: identifying a social coalition the party can represent, and identifying ideas and policies to deal with the problems that social coalition perceives it has. In other words, Labour needs to become a political party again.