Nigel Farage. Photo: Flickr/Gage Skidmore Nigel Farage. Photo: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

The European election results show a catastrophe for the Tories, a bad night for Labour and the main beneficiary was Farage’s Brexit Party, writes Alex Snowdon

The Tories did disastrously and Labour did badly in the European elections. The election, which was never meant to take place but did so because the UK has not yet left the European Union, became a proxy referendum on Brexit. The massive losses for both the main parties predominantly benefited the Brexit Party – with Nigel Farage’s new party the comfortable winners, with 32% of the national vote – and the Lib Dems, who took the votes of many Remain supporters disillusioned with either the Tories or Labour.

Tory catastrophe

The Tories were hammered on a scale that is barely believable. The country’s ruling party collapsed to just 9% of the popular vote and returned only 4 MEPs, compared to 19 in 2014 (when elections to the European Parliament last took place). This is its worst ever result in a national election since the modern Conservative Party developed in the 1830s. Most of its traditional voters either stayed at home or deserted to the Brexit Party or, to a lesser extent, the Lib Dems.

This underlines the extraordinary crisis of the Tory government. It follows the loss of over 1300 council seats in local elections earlier this month. Theresa May resigned as prime minister this week after repeated failures to get her Brexit deal through parliament and against the backdrop of plummeting poll ratings and the prospect of awful results on Sunday night.

The highly competitive field for the imminent election of her successor reflects deep splits and rampant factionalism in the Tory Party, which is also suffering from a falling activist base and declining membership. No successor will be able to resolve the political crisis, whatever path they choose to take. The parliamentary arithmetic simply isn’t there – and the Tory Party is becoming increasingly dislodged from articulating the interests of the ruling class it is meant to represent.

Labour confusion

In such a context it may seem obvious that Labour ought – despite its own poor results – to be relentlessly pushing for a general election. Indeed several trade union leaders, including the general secretaries of the big three Labour affiliates (Unite, Unison, GMB), have made exactly that call in the last few days. A general election is necessary because the current government cannot, with the current makeup of parliament, chart a way forward over leaving the EU. It would also allow Labour the chance to broaden the political debate from Brexit, to campaign around issues like education, housing, the NHS, climate change and the economy, and to achieve a high degree of unity in taking its message to the country.

Yet the real picture is very different. We are seeing a renewed offensive from the Labour Right to both destabilise Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing leadership and campaign for a second referendum on EU membership. This is drawing a degree of support from politicians and commentators not normally associated with right-wing attacks on Corbyn, many of whom support a so-called People’s Vote.

Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary, led the way with her public call – during the BBC’s election night coverage – for a change of policy on holding another referendum. Paul Mason and other commentators are providing the ideological ballast for such a shift and, in the case of Mason, demanding the removal of key Corbyn associates like Ian Lavery, Karie Murphy and Seumas Milne.

The disorientation generated by this is such that John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – the two senior Labour politicians closest politically to Corbyn – both tweeted that Labour now needs to go down the road of seriously contemplating another referendum. It is a universal rule that Labour’s right wing only ever scores successes when sections of the Left retreat. This is no different.

Such claims from People’s Vote advocates are based on a faulty and selective reading of the election results. John Curtice, Britain’s leading psephologist, has emphasised that the results categorically do not resolve the Brexit question either way, with roughly equal numbers opting for unambiguously Leave parties as for unambiguously Remain parties. A glance at the Brexit Party’s high vote shares in regions like the north east and Yorkshire indicate the potential for Labour to lose marginal seats in predominantly Leave-voting areas in a general election.

The real solution is to focus on the broader political, social and economic issues that concern people, offer radical alternatives on those questions, and renew serious mass campaigning. Labour needs to be – and to be seen as – an insurgent and anti-establishment force. There should be more of the big Corbyn rallies and greater engagement with extra-parliamentary movements.

The first step should be Jeremy Corbyn announcing that he will speak at the national demonstration during Donald Trump’s state visit next week. Labour should also work with trade unions to call and build a potentially massive demonstration demanding a general election.  

Green wave

Away from the main headlines, there are a few interesting developments worth picking up on. One is just how well the Greens did, with 12% of the vote share. This reinforces what happened in local elections at the start of May, when the party won hundreds of council seats. It is partly Brexit-related, but surely also linked to the increased salience of climate change as a prominent political issue. That is on the back of the wave of Youth Climate Strike and Extinction Rebellion protests.

The Greens have previously benefited from elections held under a proportional representation system, but their vote share more than doubling – compared to 2014 – suggests it is more than that. Similarly, their success was matched by that of many Green parties elsewhere in western Europe. Polling evidence points to such growing support as being mainly concentrated among younger voters.

It isn’t clear how much the Greens will build on such breakthroughs, either in the UK or elsewhere in Europe. But from a Labour perspective, it illustrates the need (in electoral terms, never mind anything else) to develop radical policies on tackling the climate crisis. Recent positive moves in that direction should be developed further.

Failures for Change UK and Ukip

Another development is the crushing defeat of Change UK, with under 4% of the vote nationally. This was far from inevitable when we recall the exaggerated media fanfare around its launch. However, those who argued that it was a fundamentally misconceived project – because the Lib Dems already inhabit the political terrain it wants to occupy – have been vindicated.

It could now be subsumed by the Lib Dems. Pre-results talk of a ‘merger’ by leading Change UK figures, such as Chuka Umunna, was merely a way of prettifying the more brutal reality that it cannot carve out a political space independent of its much bigger, more well-established, rival. Its dismal showing also shows why Labour really shouldn’t be scared of alienating its most right-wing MPs, who have nowhere to go except the dustbin of history.

Then there is the poor vote for Ukip, with a similar vote share to Change UK (both parties failed to win a single seat). This is despite massive name recognition and millions of voters having voted for the party previously. It is largely explained by the Brexit Party hoovering up the pro-Leave protest votes. The crucial point, though, is that a racist party that has developed an increasing far-right orientation wasn’t able to reach beyond a tiny portion of the electorate.

Nigel Farage did so well precisely by focusing relentlessly on one issue, saying almost nothing about immigration (or anything else). The current limits of the far right – compared to quite a few other European countries, most notably France, Germany, Hungary and Italy – are starkly exposed. The pitiful vote for ‘Tommy Robinson’ – taking just 2.2% in the north west region – reinforces this, indicating how limited his support is.

Scotland: Labour in the doldrums

Finally, it is worth noting the results in Scotland. The results are truly awful for Labour: the party, once dominant in the country, is reduced to fifth place and not returning a single MEP. It has completely failed to capitalise on the rightwards shift of the SNP since the nationalist party’s 2015 general election landslide.

The biggest reason is that support for retaining the Union in the 2014 referendum – and working so closely with the Tories in advance of that referendum – did Labour deep damage that it has never recovered from. This followed years of growing disillusionment due to the disastrous right-wing shift associated with New Labour.

Labour’s continuing implacable opposition to independence means it is incapable of becoming a serious and popular left-wing force. There is a popular idea on the Labour left that the party can win back lots of lost Scottish seats in a general election without addressing the independence question. That is almost certainly wrong. Scottish Labour remains stuck as long as it clings to support for the Union and cuts itself off from the widespread pro-independence mood.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).