It is a political truism that the European and local elections are an
irrelevance, certainly compared with the serious business of a general
election. Yet even if that were true, we are still on the verge of something
remarkable. The UK Independence Party – which took barely 3 per cent of the
vote in 2010, and has never won a seat at Westminster – is the favourite to
top the poll. Whether or not the insurgency can be sustained, this
represents quite an achievement for Nigel Farage and his party, and quite an
indictment of the political class.
But is such scorn deserved? Much of Ukip’s success stems from the
disillusionment of traditional working-class voters, who feel abandoned by
the big parties, and by a modern world that is fast moving in the wrong
direction. There is also widespread frustration with the European Union,
which seems deemed to land us with burdensome directives and unwanted
migrants and offer little in return.
The danger, however, is that the public’s heart overrides its head. It is not
just that the Tories’ performance in office has, on balance, been strong
enough to warrant them the benefit of the doubt, not least on the economy.
It is that sending a message to Brussels by backing Ukip is likely to
accomplish the opposite of its intended end.
Mats Persson of the Open Europe think tank outlined in The Telegraph,
the Continent’s anti-establishment mood is likely to result in the European
Parliament becoming polarised between federalists and radicals. The latter
parties, such as Ukip, have little interest in cooperating – or engaging
with Brussels’s day-to-day work. The effect will be to hand control to the
two main blocs (both unthinkingly Europhile), and squeeze out reformists,
such as the Conservatives, making it more likely that legislation damaging
to Britain’s interests will pass.
This matters hugely – for in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty, the European
Parliament has a real voice in decision-making, not least in the areas where
David Cameron hopes to win reform. The Tories are the only party offering a
realistic prospect of the referendum that Ukip longs for – but during the
gruelling process of negotiation, Mr Cameron needs all the allies in
Brussels that he can get.
The likelihood is that the voters will weigh this evidence and decide to
endorse Ukip anyway. That will be embarrassing for Mr Cameron, but rather
more so for Ed Miliband. If his party fails to top the poll, it will have to
ask itself why those in search of an alternative have gone to Mr Farage
rather than the Opposition. Whatever happens, today’s elections will be of
more than usual interest.
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