The Euros are the elections that don’t matter. Except they do.

by Rob Marchant

It’s complicated. Next week’s election will not change very much in itself. We will send members of our favourite parties off to Brussels again in greater or lesser numbers to vote on things that, we tell pollsters on a regular basis, we care little about. Everyone’s eyes will be on the greater prize of a general election, less than twelve months away.

And you can forget the polling around this election; it means very little. Rarely has there been an election with so much of the electorate avowedly committed to protest voting, often for parties they don’t even really like.

A friend of mine, traditionally to the left of me, is voting UKIP. Why? Not because he likes them. Because he’s fed up with both right and left. “Because there’s a chance, just a chance”, he says, “that something might change”.

Now, I believe him to be wrong. But his vote forms part of an anti-establishment effect, which transcends right and left and which has blossomed in recent troubled times right across the developed world. It is not just UKIP, but Respect. It is the People’s Assembly, UK Uncut and other anti-austerity groups. The Occupy crowd. The other nationalists and secessionists. The Spanish “Indignados”. The Tea Party. The list is long.

The principal common trait of all these groups is being against the political establishment and, with the possible exception of the nationalists, if ever confronted with the tedious demands of actually having to do something in office, most would surely run in horror in the opposite direction.

So, forget the Euro-election polling and results. They tell us nothing. Things will blip up for UKIP and punish the main parties, and then in all probability blip back down by the end of the year, well in time for a distinctly lukewarm performance at the general election.

Of course, such “outlier” polling happily feeds the new-paradigm, all-bets-are-off brigade’s analysis. The trouble with supposed new paradigms in politics is that they are very rarely true.

But the election does matter. Why?

Think of a balloon. You blow it up, and let it down again. But the let-down balloon is not the same size as it originally was. It is bigger. Rubber is not perfectly elastic, so part of its stretching is permanent. The concept is simple. it’s not just where you end up; the end state will be different, depending on the path you take to get there. In most cases, it is not the same to go from A to B via C as it is to go via D. Mathematicians and economists call it path-dependency.

The possible wildcard is how much UKIP’s showing will convulse Cameron’s back benches into a mutinous froth, and whether he can withstand the resulting rightward pressure.

So, while the polls may well return gradually to normal for UKIP after this blip, the important point is that the resulting impact on Tory policy could be a little longer-lasting. The question is whether that impulse will push the Tories past their “tipping point”, where the rightwards pressure from their back benches outweighs Cameron’s will to stand his ground in the centre.

Now, suppose that (a) UKIP’s strong showing is enough to kick the Tories into a position of such rank right-wing stupidity that it alienates the mainstream electorate, and (b) that Labour positions itself to take advantage of the centre ground vacated by the Tories’ lurch. We have the beginnings of a strategy which could yet see Miliband on the steps of No. 10.

So, just like the balloon, the effect of the UKIP’s apogee on the Tories may not be perfectly elastic either. That blip upwards of UKIP, like the impulse of a pinball flipper, may have a more lasting impact on the overall political landscape than, in all probability, the party itself will do.

As Hopi Sen pointed out yesterday, “we should reject the inevitability of victory or defeat”. Things are neither great nor terrible just yet. The problem for Labour is that the chances of Miliband seizing such an opportunity to move towards the centre, where the votes are, seem tantalisingly slim. As an old professor of mine used to say: best indicator of future behaviour? Past behaviour.

Miliband’s political trajectory to date has been to aim consistently for a distinctly party-unifying, soft-left direction. To listen to the siren voices of the well-meaning wonks amongst whom he seems to feel at home but who, so far, are decidedly light on hard-nosed, workable policy. But time is running out for that kind of a strategy.

Now, in making such an about-face towards the centre, he would also run the risk, of course, of seeming opportunistic and inconsistent. But surely better that than leaving a vacuum in the political centre, vulnerable to sucking up protest votes for anti-establishment parties, or even no votes at all.

In the most positive sense, Miliband is not without a certain streak of ruthlessness; it is pretty much a necessary condition to be party leader, or at least a successful one. Perhaps this facet will take the upper hand as he comes into the home straight, and perhaps it should. A recalibration of strategy and people, and one extremely short on ruth, could just tip the balance.

One hopes so: with the seemingly inexorable downward drift in Labour’s poll lead – noting that Monday’s poll by Lord Ashcroft and then Tuesday’s ICM poll showed the first Tory leads in two years – this may be Miliband’s, and Labour’s, last opening.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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16 Responses to “The Euros are the elections that don’t matter. Except they do.”

  1. Ex Labour says:

    Rob
    You are correct and the latest Guardian / ICM polls put the Conservatives on top in front of Labour and UKIP. This poll also looks at GE voting intensions also.

    However, one of the most striking things in the poll, which Labour supporters ignore, is that the public do not like Miliband and do not see him as a PM. As Atul previously pointed out Labour are pretty much where they were 3 years ago and the public still do not trust them on the critical questions. Miliband drifts in and out occassionally making some ill considered soundbite policy-on-the-hoof.

    UKIP will fade somewhat nearer the GE, as most fringe parties tend to do. Traditional affliliations will take over as reality sets in. But make no mistake Labour are suffering because of UKIP as well as the Tories and UKIP will have some influence on the GE result.

  2. Madasafish says:

    Any party which retains Ed Balls as the Shadow Chancellor has an albatross hung round the neck of its reputation for economic competence and a leader whose political nous is close to zero.

    (I’ve been saying it for years.. chickens are now roosting)

  3. steve says:

    It would be difficult for Miliband to go even further to the Right without actually submitting a membership application to the Tory Party.

    He’s dumped the unions following the cooked-up crisis at Falkirk. He’s accepted the Tory austerity narrative and has encouraged a ‘tougher than the Tories on scroungers’ approach. He backed the chaos-instigating military intervention in Libya (“Before we only had one Gaddafi, but now we have hundreds.”). And he slapped down the renationalisation vote at the conference.

    Yet, for very good reasons, none of this has pulled in the voting punters. In fact, the drift to the Right has seen polling ratings slide. Probably the Left-leaning LibDem defectors are now abandoning Labour. And those, like myself, who are unable to discern any notable differentiation within the LibLabCon are looking for a suitable anti-Westminster elite option.

  4. paul barker says:

    On an average of the last 8 Polls Labour stand at 34%, thats 9% down over the last 15 Months. Project that trend forward to next May & you get Labour on 27%, thats 3% down on your disastrous 2010 performance.
    Even Labour moderates are finding it hard to accept reality.

  5. Danny says:

    UKIP’s popularity arises from an anti-establishment mentality among the electorate and a feeling that all parties are the same.

    Rob Marchant’s answer? Make Labour even more similar to the Tories.

    It would be funny if he wasn’t being serious. But as he is, it is utterly, completely and incomprehensibly stupid.

  6. Ex labour says:

    @Steve

    “Drift to the right” ? I had to read that again just in case I read it wrongly. If you think Siliband is drifting right then you have a pretty skewed view of politics. Either that or you must be to the left of Marx. He has said nothing on welfare, nothing on immigration and has dropped the anti austerity nonsense. Why ? If you are losing the argument then you shut up and almost everyone including staunch labour supporters would agree Balls and Miliband have lost the financial argument and all the polls tell us that.

    The unions put him there (against the wishes of the PLP) and he fudged the question of separating from the union funding to keep his paymasters on side. Admittedly some have decided to stop funding the party anyway.

    The two Ed’s are an electoral liability and as far as Miliband is concerned with the unions, if you sleep with the dog you will get flees.

  7. Tafia says:

    The euros do matter this time – very much so. Because UKIP will do well, because it is less than 12 months to the next General Election and because Cameron is offering a guarenteed in/out referendum by 2017, then the next General Election will be dominated by the EU whether Labour want it to be or not. No matter how Labour try to change the agenda it will always be met with ‘yes but what about the EU’ and the only way Labour will be able to counter that is to match Cameron’s referendum promise – which is something they are loathe to do.

    My money is on Cameron with a minority government.

  8. @ExLabour: For the record, I don’t ignore Miliband’s personal polling (and have commented on it a number of times, including in the Labour Uncut book). I think it’s healthy to do so in an objective, rather than a personal, way. But you are probably right that many Labour members find it an uncomfortable debate.

    @Steve: I think you’ve rather made my point about protest voting for me. But I don’t think people are abandoning Labour because it’s not left-wing enough. Labour’s political centre of gravity these days is pretty clearly to the left of centre-left, although true that some policy areas (such as immigration) buck that trend.

  9. Robert says:

    The lowest point of my political life was when I realised that I did not care who won the 2005 election, so I voted for the Lib Dems. Labour has gradually been moving back to people like me since 2007 and is still leading in most polls I would vote Green if Miliband followed Rob’s advice and there is already a centre party, the Lib Dems, if you are that way inclined.

  10. steve says:

    Rob: “you’ve rather made my point about protest voting”

    Delighted to be able to help out.

    Particularly when, for us at least, protest voting is still an option.

    It’ll be UKIP all the way for me now, on account of Farage’s opposition to the EU’s role in toppling a democratically elected government in Ukraine.

  11. Ex labour says:

    @rob

    It wasn’t a personal comment regarding you, it was more that there are some on here who are oblivious to Milibands personal ratings. All the history says party leaders with such ratings are doomed to failure. Labour’s poll ratings have slipped drastically over the last year and yet there are those who don’t or refuse to acknowledge what’s happening.

  12. @PaulBarker: You are absolutely right about the trend being important, however I think you are over-egging it slightly. It depends, of course, upon how you calculate that trend.
    I have written here about Leo Barasi’s research, which suggests a decline of around 12% over the final two years of the parliament, meaning that we would be looking at roughly neck-and-neck polling by May next year. For this reason I still say things are too close to call. That said, I may change that view if polls continue to slide at a consistently faster rate.

    @ExLabour: I share your incredulity.

    @Tafia: you miss the fact that, time and again, polls show that Britons do not care about Europe very much when it comes to general elections. It is way down their priority lists (rightly, in my opinion).

    @Robert: fair enough. Politics is to some extent a calculation of what you may win and what you may lose by pursuing a given strategy. I still think Miliband is better off in the centre.

  13. John Reid says:

    Danny, you really think, a party lead by a public school boy banker backed by Ex Tory a founders, like the a cigarette manufacturer is, anti establishment, it’s not making a labour like the Tories to be in the centre, the Tories have swung to the centre ,it’s Ed saying things before the media jumped onto them, that takes the centre ground with you, to where ,the centre neo is, like Ed being the first to criticise phone hacking, being against invading Syria.

    Incidentally how do you define anti establishment, Blair or Thatcher went against the Establishment norms of the day.

  14. Tafia says:

    @Tafia: you miss the fact that, time and again, polls show that Britons do not care about Europe very much when it comes to general elections. It is way down their priority lists (rightly, in my opinion).

    Nope – you miss the fact that the tories are on the rise and their offer of a guarenteed referendum is popular with the voters – that coupled with a good UKIP euro vote in 2014 is going to keep the EU right at the forefront in the 2015 general election .

    If the Tories win in 2015 – which looks increasingly likely, referendum will happen and when the EU is the sole issue in a 2017 referendum people will be voting solely on that one subject with only three non-party choices – for, against or don’t bother voting, no-one has any idea what will happen. Remember, several major trades unions will be against the EU in a 2017 vote, and like the 1970’s, politicians from all parties will be on all sides so you will have Labour MPs on both sides along with tories and LibDems. Northern Ireland? Sinn Fein and all the unionists are anti-EU. Scotland? Might not even be in the UK by then.

  15. Danny says:

    @ John Reid

    Give me a few days to track down an Enigma machine and I’ll have a go at decoding what you’ve just typed.

  16. The Labour leadership has done little to challenge the myths of UKIP, or present popular progressive policies (apparently 71% of UKIP voters favour rail nationalisation). Hence, on Thursday I’ll be voting Green to encourage a Labour improvement, if not even a change of leader.

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