Even before a single vote was cast in Thursday’s election, it was clear that UKIP would clean up. That the party has not made a more significant impact on the council landscape is mainly due to the UK’s first past the post system (pay attention, Liberal Democrats), but the specifics of the British electoral system should not invite complacency on behalf of the established parties, as the 24 UKIP MEPs, elected under a proportional representation system, prove.
Given that Labour’s strategy was to remain silent on Europe and hope that its voters would automatically transfer their support to the European elections, it practically handed victory to UKIP. Labour has done well, gaining seven MEPs and increasing the number of council seats by 338. As the last time Labour won a European election was in 1994 under Margaret Beckett’s interim leadership, some commentators are hailing a second place as a huge victory. But it has not done well enough to be confident about winning next year’s general election. This satisfaction with being the runner-up is therefore a mistake.
The fate of the Liberal Democrats may invite the Labour leadership to further postpone clarifying its position on Europe, but hiding behind the losses of a rival party is hardly the behaviour of a government in waiting. The Lib Dems’ electoral woes are mainly due to a collection of broken promises since they joined a Conservative government rather than due to their unabashed pro-European campaign.
Cameron’s promise that the voices of those apparently disaffected with the EU have been “heard and understood” suggests that his party’s Eurosceptic wing will be significantly strengthened. But despite promising a referendum in 2017, the majority of UKIP’s gains have been taken from the Conservatives rather than Labour. Ed Miliband must not fall into the same trap of bowing to pressure by shifting Labour’s position to the right and support a referendum. Instead, Labour needs to tackle UKIP head on by making a positive case for Europe and by openly talking about the underlying causes for Euroscepticism.
This challenge is not confined to the UK, however, and it is this task that progressives throughout Europe need to take on. The left has done sensationally badly in France, where Marine Le Pen’s Front National scored 25 per cent of the electoral vote, sending 24 MEPs to Brussels. European parliament rules mean that political groups must have at least 25 MEPs from five different countries; given Sunday’s results, it is clear the European parliament will for the first time see an extreme right-wing group.
As argued previously in the series, UKIP’s arguments were sustained by very little fact and could easily have been countered had Labour chosen to do so. As was the case with the Front National and the Dutch ‘Party of Freedom’, UKIP’s main focus and allure during its election campaign was immigration.
Blaming a country’s social and economic problems on immigration is an easy invitation for parties without real solutions, as it shifts the onus of change from the electorate to a community of potential scapegoats. Unemployment, crime, even climate change is blamed on a group of foreigners whose mere presence in the country causes an unsustainable strain to the social system.
The migration debate is tricky and requires balanced and careful language. It also requires honesty. A recent study by IPSOS Mori shows that some 31 per cent of the population is thought to consist of recent immigrants, whereas the actual figure is between 13-15 per cent, a misconception that could be explained through the rhetoric used by extreme right-wing parties.
In order to realise the benefits of immigration not only in the economy, but also among existing communities, political parties need to be honest about the changes politicians must make, and about the changes required from the host population. Competitiveness of skills is a key issue here. In order for Britain to remain competitive, education standards must be raised, learning a second language should be compulsory and start in primary schools, and lifelong learning should be a key feature of every professional career. More focus must be put on capturing those currently losing out from the benefits of an open market.
But most importantly, instead of jumping on the bandwagon of pointing towards a potential culprit, political leaders must find the audacity to tell voters when they are wrong. Both the EU and immigration are progressive forces that can benefit this country. Instead of moving to the right by toughening up immigration, they need to improve national standards in education and vocational skills when they are falling behind in international comparison, and they must phrase the message in a way that voters are willing to hear it.
Labour should remember that most British people are naturally open minded and welcoming. They will listen to a positive message on immigration and on Europe if Labour is courageous enough to state it. Trying to counter UKIP’s advance through more Euroscepticism is the wrong answer to a question no one has asked. Labour can disarm UKIP by making a positive case for Europe and by openly and honestly talking about immigration. This, of course, requires political nerve, but so does becoming prime minister.