Britain's Brown Suffers Another Blow in European Elections
It's perhaps an inevitable consequence of European parliamentary elections that voters in country after country across the continent so often choose to thump national politicians over distinctly domestic issues. As the results of Thursday's Europe-wide poll trickled in late Sunday, nowhere was that more evident than Britain. Rounding off an abysmal week for Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister's Labour Party slumped to third in the Euro vote with just 15.7% of the vote, far behind the opposition Conservatives and trumped even by the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), a fringe group whose singular focus is to get Britain to quit the E.U. altogether. Worse still, the far-right British National Party (BNP) picked up two seats in the Strasbourg Parliament, its first ever. "It was," said Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, "a very, very bad defeat for us."
You have to go back close to 100 years to find a worse result for Labour in a national poll. In a couple of southern English regions, the party fell to fifth behind the Greens; Labour came second to the Conservatives in Wales, where it has won in election after election for decades. (Read "Europe's Voters Reward the Right.")
The implosion owes much to the economic crisis but also to a series of Labour blunders. As it's the party in power, revelations that MPs on all sides have been milking a lavish expenses system have left Labour with the bloodiest nose. Throw in the perception that the governing party is out of steam, out of ideas and surviving on borrowed time, and the results were never likely to bring Labour out of its stupor.
As it was, the party's rout Labour's share of the votes fell 7 percentage points, at a cost of five seats in Europe's Parliament was far more dramatic than any of its rivals' gains. In securing its 13 seats in the European Parliament, for instance, UKIP increased its slice of the vote by just half a point. The Tories, with close to twice the share of votes as Labour's, saw its support climb by only 1 point. Even the BNP, whose two northern English seats included one for Nick Griffin, the party's pugnacious leader, grew its share of polling by just 1.3 points. Voters were desperate to "kick us in the shins," said Chris Bryant, Labour's deputy leader of the House of Commons, "if not somewhere a little further north of that."
Still, fallout from the prominence of fringe parties could be far-reaching. While Britain's first-past-the-post voting system at general elections mitigates against small parties, the euroskeptic Conservatives, for instance, will be left pondering how many of its supporters could in the future migrate to UKIP and how it might keep them from doing so. The triumph of the BNP (along with seats for far-right parties from the Netherlands and Austria) will add to concerns that the economic downturn is fueling a move to fascist parties in some corners of Europe.
For Brown, the impact could be most painful of all. Labour lost control of all four of its remaining county councils in local elections also held last Thursday. And as a string of disillusioned Ministers rushed for the exits in the days on either side of the poll, Brown even bungled a Cabinet reshuffle designed to reassert his authority. Trailing in third in the European elections leaves the PM "beaten by a party that he mocked and derided as being on the fringes," said UKIP leader Nigel Farage. "So if we have beaten him, he has got to go."
Farage's call echoing that of many Labour MPs in recent days surely won't be the last; expect further dissent at a meeting this evening between Brown and Labour MPs. Despite the rumpus, though, there are reasons Brown only two years into his premiership could yet cling on. Rebel MPs have so far shown little sign of uniting around a single replacement for Brown. Even if they manage to, choosing a second successive unelected Prime Minister would make an immediate general election almost inevitable.
Adam Smith / London
Go to Page 2 to read about the election in Italy.