“Earthquake”, screamed the headlines of even reputable news outlets on Monday. Witnessing them, it seems as if a large chunk of the Europe’s 400-odd million voters had got up one morning, and said to themselves in unison, “instead of supporting the mainstream parties I’ve voted for all my life, you know what, I now really like all the policies of the radical right. What the hell.”
Indeed, it makes scant sense, if you choose to look at it as part of the normal ebb and flow of left-right politics. Yes, we haven’t had quite enough of austerity yet, so let’s move a bit further to the right, shall we? I don’t think that harsh medicine is really tough enough. Said no-one at all.
No, to understand it all, we must dig a little deeper. There was a rather good cartoon doing the rounds yesterday which explained the phenomenon in Europe’s three largest states: Hollande and Cameron were shown being eaten whole by large dogs, called “Front National” and “UKIP”. Angela Merkel was shown with a little dog called “NPD” (the German far right), snapping ineffectually at her ankles.
The comparison is accurate: for different reasons, governments in France and Britain have been beset by effective attacks from their right flanks, while Germany has not. The picture is, in fact, much more mixed than the headlines might suggest.
Hollande has been, sadly for us on the left, a pretty much unmitigated disaster as president. Almost as soon as they elected him, the French public regretted it. He promised things he was patently unable to deliver, and now the electorate are punishing him by voting Front National.
Cameron is a moderate Tory who has navigated his way through the last four years on the slenderest of mandates. Neither particularly popular nor unpopular, he is also being attacked from the right, although for the rather different reason of British grumpiness over Europe, the whole thing egged on by the chancers on his own back benches.
These are relatively weak leaders and still relatively new to power. By contrast, Merkel is now Europe’s long-standing stateswoman, has often enjoyed approval ratings her two neighbours can only dream of and is widely respected (or even feared). Is it surprising she has no similar competition from the radical right? She is a heavyweight politician.
All this points up one thing: these results are not an “earthquake” at all. They are a protest against ineffectual leadership and politics-as-usual of all stripes. Indeed, there were a number of countries where the left won on Sunday.
Where does all this leave Labour? The point is, as Atul Hatwal wrote at Labour Uncut last Friday, “Ukip only exist because Labour is not the vehicle for popular protest”. If Labour had been forming an effective enough opposition, significant swathes of the electorate would not be minded to protest-vote.
They are not only voting in protest, but for parties which have no chance of getting a seat in almost any area of the country next year. Yes, they must be pretty fed up of the main parties, although that will change in an election which they care about.
But, credit where it’s due: Ed Miliband, in his “taking on UKIP” speech yesterday in Thurrock, was quite right about one thing: the EU will not be the biggest issue at the next election. It never is. And neither will UKIP.
The issues will, predictably, be more traditional. The economy. Voters’ gut feel about a party leader as prime minister. And those areas are currently much more problematic for Labour than for the Tories.
We have just broken even with the Tories under the happy effect of a bunch of Ukippers stealing their votes. It would be nice to think that that is a permanent shift, so that our position relative to the Tories does not worsen further over the next twelve months as those voters return.
But it is not. It really is not.
This post first published at Labour Uncut