This year’s European elections and Scottish referendum may signify a more profound change in British politics than the General Election in 2015, writes Ed Cox. Taken together, they present an opportunity for the people of the United Kingdom to send a clear message to the mainstream political parties.
Tomorrow’s local and European elections are not really one plebiscite but two – and experience shows that when held on the same date there is a boost to voter turnout. This is important because all too often the secondary story in a local election, after which party is judged to have ‘won’, is the continued decline of those bothering to cast their vote.
The steady attrition of local government over the past two decades has meant that canny voters see little purpose in electing ward councillors stripped of any real responsibility. The double whammy of a local and European vote, combined with the unusual energy the mainstream parties have put into campaigning a year before their big day, will mean more people will head out to their polling stations.
Not that European elections in themselves are a cause for huge popular enthusiasm. But there is a sense that the EU has more meaningful powers than local government. Recent polling evidence published by IPPR North shows that when asked who has the most influence over how England is run, nearly one third of the population say Europe with only two per cent saying local councils.
Asked who SHOULD have the most power over England and the pattern is reversed. So whether the public will turn out to vote in grudging recognition of the EU’s perceived power, or in vain hope of more powerful local authorities, the level of turnout could be an interesting indication of general dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Enter Nigel Farage. If tomorrow’s elections are about anything this year, then they are about UKIP. Whilst Farage has clearly played a clever game, the mainstream parties and their media buddies have played into UKIP’s hands with blanket comment and coverage of their daily PR disasters.
If ever there was a case of all news being good news then it is this. Farage – especially at his most contrite – has styled himself as a man of the people, and quite unlike the other party leaders. For this reason alone his popularity has soared as people enjoy his failure to control the media machine in the way the mainstream parties do. His party’s serious misdemeanours seem somehow forgiven by those for whom ‘the system’ seems to have failed. Any village but the Westminster village.
Although, of course, UKIP voters will want to send out a clear message on Europe, woe betide a parliamentarian who doesn’t also perceive this as a confidence vote in the status quo. The results may also influence the public mood ahead of events later in the year and one suspects that Alex Salmond will be watching them closely. Here again is a man who has forged his identity as much on what he stands against as what he stands for. Scottish Nationalist Party popularity is once again derived from the perceived failures of the Westminster system to deliver for a nation that seems so disconnected from the London elite.
There is still much to play for between now and September 18. – and there is little doubt that economic and social issues will be tossed to and fro. It is interesting to note, though, that when the Better Together campaign makes a procedural case against independence – you can’t have the pound, you won’t be in the EU – their efforts seem counter-productive.
This is further indication that the Westminster bubble doesn’t get it. As with Farage’s faux pas, the appeal to reason falls on deaf ears and is lost on those parts of the population gagging for change. The referendum in September will be as much a vote of confidence in the parliamentary system as it is a vote about the future of Scotland.
This poses some significant challenges for all of the mainstream parties, so wedded as they are to the Westminster machine. Do they take the pain and ride it out in the knowledge that challenger parties tend to go away themselves as their bubbles slowly deflate and the machine regains its hold?
Do they shift position and tempt the waifs and strays into the mainstream fold? Or do they cast out in a new direction altogether recognising the system is broken with genuine and meaningful devolution in the next Parliament?
Only time will tell. But if UKIP and the SNP sustain their energies into next year’s general election – almost irrespective of the actual results – then it might just be that tomorrow’s election will be judged to have been a significant turning point for politics in Britain.