‘Unprecedented’ is the ultimate hard-on word that overexcited political reporters are fond of using whenever they want to up the dramatic ante; but in this particular case it really is unavoidable. Yes, these are elections to the European Parliament and, let’s be honest: many don’t normally even bother to register their vote, and MEPs (bar Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannan) are usually the most anonymous politicians in the country. But it’s worth remembering this has been the first occasion since the 2017 General Election that the British electorate have had clear Leave and Remain choices on the ballot paper, and the electorate have responded accordingly. The Brexit Party won in all the English regions bar London and also won Wales, even finishing runners-up to the SNP north of the border. When one takes into account the fact that the Brexit Party is only six weeks old, the comprehensive victory it has achieved is genuinely…well…unprecedented. 38% of the vote, 29 MEPs – remarkable.
The rapid rise of the Brexit Party and the resurgence of the Lib Dems – the only political parties (in England, at least) whose intentions are blatantly honest – can be seen as both a rejection of doublethink spin and as further evidence of electoral dissatisfaction with Labour and the Tories. The 2016 ballot paper provided the visitor to the polling booth with a straightforward in/out choice, and the public mood is still one that sees the most divisive issue of our times in simple black & white terms; despite ongoing attempts by the two main parties to wrap it in endless complexities as an example of how they’re clever and we’re not, voters in the European Elections have kept it simple, and who they chose to vote for reflects this. They either want to leave or they want to remain – just like they did three years ago. The fact the majority opted for the former in 2016 and yet we still haven’t left means a degree in rocket science isn’t necessary when wondering why a party that didn’t even exist a couple of months ago has swept the Brussels board.
Political divisions in Britain for a hundred years or more have been between left and right or Labour and Conservative – ideological and party allegiances that have shaped the landscape. Yet we now appear to have returned to the factions and groupings of the 18th century, whereas instead of being a Whig or a Tory, you’re now a Brexiteer or a Remainer – and whether you happen to lean to the left or dress to the right has no bearing on that. Granted, old habits find dying harder come a General Election, but the outcome of this Euro vote we shouldn’t even have taken part in has demonstrated – far more than the recent local results – just how much tradition has gone for a Burton. Yes, protest votes have always been a way of venting a grievance with one’s preferred party in a local or by-election; but to have so many prominent mouthpieces for both Labour and the Conservatives openly declaring they would vote against their own parties has been a notable departure from the script, especially considering how both are in such dire need of a cuddle from old friends.
It has to be said, the Lib Dems deserve credit for the way in which they have capitalised on the mixed messages coming from the big two and have essentially reinvented and rebranded themselves as the Remain Party. ‘Stop Brexit’ (if you live in a home-owning neighbourhood) and ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ (if you emanate from a council estate) have been their short, snappy slogans in a campaign they have managed with unexpectedly canny genius. They picked up on the fact that the public wanted straight-talking and, seeing how Leavers suddenly had a focus with the swift formation of Farage’s colourful coalition, they gave Remainers a party of their own too.
Even the anticipated splitting of the Remain vote via the conceited deserters formerly known as TIG failed to materialise; the spectacular failure of the vanity project that is Change UK (and is it mere coincidence that their name when abbreviated reads as ‘CHUK’?) has been the sole crumb of comfort for the Conservatives as this pitiful party, along with the obliterated UKIP, has at least given Tories someone to look down on from the depths of the relegation zone they now languish in. Were any of the Change UK MPs to give their constituents the chance to comment on their defection from the parties they stood for in 2017, I wonder how many would be returned to Parliament? The likelihood of any by-elections in those constituencies seems more remote than ever today.
Not that anyone was expecting unbiased reporting, but the BBC coverage of the election results not only saw amusing straw-clutching when desperately combining all non-Brexit Party votes as evidence that the country now favours Remain; there was also the persistent and irritating inference that all Brexit Party votes were gained via a simple transfusion from UKIP – as though the party was Milton Keynes Dons inheriting the history and club records of Wimbledon FC and it was all down to mere rebranding. Well, to use the language of the Lib Dems, bollocks. The Brexit Party isn’t simply UKIP under another name. It may well have sucked-up the share of the vote that went to Farage’s former vehicle five years ago, but by presenting itself as the only unambiguous option available to Leavers, the party has attracted thousands of disillusioned Labour and Tory voters who have simmered and seethed when watching the MPs they voted into office two years ago either dither or deliberately obstruct the implementation of something they swore they would honour.
With 11 of the UK’s 12 regions declared at the time of writing, the only areas in which the Brexit Party failed to win the most votes were Scotland and London – yet, even in the Labour-centric capital, it was the Lib Dems rather than Corbyn’s crew that topped the table, amusingly hitting No.1 in the Islington charts as well. It was a disastrous night for Labour – pushed into third place in Wales and falling behind the Greens in the East of England as well as the South East and the South West. The piss-poor showing by Labour will heap further pressure on beleaguered Jezza by the Watson/Starmer/Thornberry Remainer triumvirate to go all-out for a second referendum strategy, which should play out well in the party’s old northern strongholds. But maybe it’s already too late; Labour have spent so long sitting on that fence that the Lib Dems have steamed ahead as the party of Remain and look set to…erm…remain.
As for the Tories, well, was anyone really surprised? The Conservatives didn’t win a single area and cannot finish any higher than fifth place when all the nationwide votes are tallied; the party can now boast a paltry four MEPs following a record low of 9.1% share of the vote; it’s the worst result in the party’s history – ever; and the Tories have a longer history than any other political party. Whoever succeeds Theresa May not only has to contend with the ever-present albeit largely imaginary threat of Corbyn; he/she also has to contend with the far more realistic threat of Nigel Farage…again – and look what that threat did to the Tories three years ago.
© The Editor