LONDON – Britain is going to the polls today in a double-barreled election: for local councils, and to send representatives to the European Parliament.
It’s hard to take either of these organizations very seriously: local councils may be responsible for delivering services, but since they raise so little of their own money, voters can’t reward them for doing more with less. And the European Parliament is the least democratic part of an undemocratic system: since it can’t do much more than scrutinize proposals submitted by the European Commission, it’s little more than a talking shop, and — as a long-running expenses scandal has yet again revealed, a tiresomely corrupt one as well.
But it’s scandal that’s turned these elections into a make-or-break moment for Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Precisely because so few respect local councils and so few like the European Parliament, the local and European elections have become an opportunity for voters to send a cost-free message to the government. Most of them stay home– turnout at the last EU election was only 38 percent, and there’s widespread speculation that it will fall below 30 percent this time.
But the ones who do vote are going to be angry. In part, they’re angry at a scandal with the reimbursement of expenses in the House of Commons that has ensnared all the major parties, but to which Brown responded with obvious reluctance. More fundamentally, though, they’re angry at a system that — as illustrated by the decline of local government and the shuffling off of powers to the EU, which now makes over half of British’s laws without any effective democratic oversight — seems to be solely concerned with taking power away from the people and feathering its own nest.
The EU result is hard to predict. Last week, it looked like Britain’s expense scandal might help Brown, by dragging down the support of the resurgent Conservatives. But over the past 48 hours, four ministers have resigned from the government, including one — Hazel Blears, the Communities and Local Government Minister — who left an hour before PM’s Questions in the Commons, and a day before the local elections.
Her resignation letter omitted the customary complimentary mention of the Prime Minister, and she departed saying that Labour had lost touch with the British people, and while wearing a brooch declaring that she was “Rocking the Boat.” Blears herself had helped to set the boat in motion by publicly admitting her own role in the expenses scandal, so her departure was perhaps a case of jumping before she was pushed.
But it hurt nonetheless.
Now, Brown’s future turns on how Labour does in the elections. Even though the Conservatives have over a thousand more local seats to defend than Labour, they are widely expected to win overall control of up to four counties: a really bad showing would put Labour fourth in overall vote, behind the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, and the collective vote for the minor parties. But it’s the European vote — which won’t be available until early next week, and which will have to be filtered through a typically opaque European-style system of proportional representation — that could be really damaging.
In 2004, Labour finished a weak second with 23 percent, ahead of the Liberals on 15 percent and the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, which wants a total withdrawal from the EU, on 16 percent. If Labour manages to top 20 percent this time round, it will be a surprise, though hardly a success. The signs are that it won’t: the latest polls show its support has crashed to 16 percent, its worst showing in its history. About a third of the vote is likely to go to UKIP, the Greens, and the British National Party, which is commonly described as ‘far-right’ but which derives most of its support from former Labour voters. Throw in the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, and the minor parties will be close to a majority. A protest vote it may be, but when protesters reach a majority, they’re no longer really protesters: they’re in charge.
Of course, the real winner is likely to be ‘none of the above.’ The stay-at-home vote will be huge, and much of the vote for UKIP is a warning to the Tories to hold true to the Eurosceptic faith. If the Conservatives do that, UKIP will take many fewer votes come the general elections. The BNP support, though far lower, is likely to be more persistent, precisely because Labour no longer has many believers among the working classes that always formed its base.
In one way, that is a boon to the Tories, who are likely to be the runaway winners on the day, especially if most UKIP voters are counted as basically Tory at heart. But it’s also a problem, and not just for Labour. The expenses scandal, the European parliament, the decline of local government, and the diminishing vote share of the major parties are all part and parcel of the fading of Britain’s post-war political model. The Tories will need follow-through on their pledges to reign in Europe and to strengthen local control if they hope to escape Labour’s fate of losing supporters to the ranks of the minor parties, the angry, and the disillusioned.