A Punch In the Establishment’s Face

27.05.14 Publication:

Here in Britain, we are searching for the right metaphor. Should the success of Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party (UKIP) in our local and European Parliament elections be described as a political earthquake, the favoured phrase in France for the Front National’s victory? Or should it be seen as a thunderstorm, which looks and sounds dramatic, but will eventually pass on? Perhaps the latter, but actually I think the right metaphor is a different one: it was a punch in the face.

This is an appropriately English metaphor, since alongside our (sometimes) gentlemanly manners we also have a violent side, especially after an evening drinking in the pub. And Farage’s UKIP is above all a party of the pub, of old-fashioned angry instincts and simple solutions. It is also appropriate because anyone who has ever been punched in the face will agree that you never forget it, and it alters the way you behave for a long time afterwards.

The punch is in the face of the political establishment, of the three traditional political parties: the left-wing Labour opposition, and the current coalition parties of the right-wing Conservatives and the centrist Liberal Democrats. All three suffered in these elections. Yet strangely, the party that ought to be happiest, or least hurt, by this punch is the Conservatives and our prime minister, David Cameron.

Cameron should be the least hurt for two reasons. First, because this punch has been shared across Europe, especially in France, so there can now be no excuse for other European governments to dismiss Britain’s calls for reform. Change is clearly necessary, and must surely be delivered in some form before the referendum on British membership that he has promised to hold during 2017, if he remains in government. Second, because domestically the punch was shared with Labour, and the Labour Party are the true threat to the Conservatives, not UKIP.

It will be very hard for Farage and UKIP to translate its European and local success to the national general elections that will be held in one year’s time, in May 2015. UKIP’s success in the municipal elections that were also held last Thursday, at the same time as the European vote, was described as dramatic in the media but actually was small: UKIP won just 4% of the council seats that were up for election, which was a big rise from zero, but still represents only a small beginning. In the European elections UKIP had a much greater triumph, winning 24 of the 73 British seats, and leading the poll with 27.5% of the vote, but then it had already won 10 seats in the 2009 European elections. After all, Europe is UKIP’s defining issue.

It is national elections that really count, for Britain at least. In national opinion polls run by the Ipsos-MORI research firm, UKIP this month was scoring just 11%, which is ahead of the much-weakened Liberal Democrats (9%) but far behind the Conservatives (31%) and Labour (35%). In Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system for general elections, this would be unlikely to give UKIP more than one or two seats in Parliament as its vote is too thinly spread in geographical terms.

Moreover, the Conservatives have good reason to be optimistic about next May’s elections. The British economy is currently growing faster than any other major economy in Europe, faster in the latest quarter even than the United States: a fairly reasonable forecast is that it will achieve 3% growth in GDP this year, which will further reduce an unemployment rate that, at 6.8%, is far below Italy’s (12.7%) and which will cause wages to begin to rise for the first time in several years. If that continues until next Spring, the Conservatives’ chances of re-election will rise.

So what will the effect of this UKIP punch be on British policies towards the European Union? One immediate point to note is that although Europe is the defining issue for UKIP—after all, it is “independence” from Europe that the party wants—the EU is not the main reason why people vote for it. That main reason, as for France’s Front National, is immigration, combined with depressed incomes, both of which may be associated with the EU in some voters’ minds but not always.

Thus the most obvious result of the punch is that all parties will now stand firmly against further immigration, at least during the year up to the general election. This will motivate all parties also to push for agreement in the EU to limit European migrants’ access to welfare benefits.

But on the EU itself, the result will be more nuanced. Another recent opinion poll by Ipsos-MORI should be noted, especially if you think all us English are Eurosceptics: their poll in May showed a striking rise in Britons’ desire to stay in the EU: 54% of respondents said that in a referendum they would vote to stay, against just 37% who said they would vote to leave, whereas when the same firm made the same poll two years ago, 48% said they would leave against 44% for staying in.

So despite this European Parliamentary vote, the mood of anti-Europeanism in Britain may well have turned and could now be in decline, thanks to economic recovery at home and the stabilising of the euro crisis. The continuation of that of course will depend on the reaction now in other European capitals, especially France, Germany and Greece, where Alexis Tsipras’s success could cause new turmoil.

It could also depend on how well Matteo Renzi uses the mandate he has won in the European polls during Italy’s presidency of the European Council in the second half of this year. It will depend on whether he can use that political strength to rekindle hope and enthusiasm for Europe as a place that can make real progress, for example on energy, one led by the young rather than by stuff Eurocrats or former Luxembourg prime ministers.

Voters’ reaction is the most important, long-term issue. But also important in the shorter term will be the response of politicians and political activists in the three main British political parties. Farage’s hope will be that he will now recruit defectors from all of them. Economic recovery could slow that flow from the Conservatives, but Labour could be vulnerable to defections—which might well now mean that the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, will feel obliged to take a tougher position about Europe too, and even promise a referendum. Until now, he has been carefully ambiguous about the issue.

The punch in the face is a simple one, which reflects simple instincts and a simple recipe for political success. Judging the consequences however is more complicated, as this punch must now be placed alongside other pressures and issues, including not just the economy but also the referendum due to be held in September in Scotland about independence from the United Kingdom.

After this punch from a UK Independence Party, no one in British politics can now afford to be complacent about the chance of another punch from Scots wanting independence from the UK—even though the opinion polls currently say the Scots will stay. The spirit of rebellion can be contagious.