Keir Ferguson is a project consultant in APCO’s London office.
The rise of UKIP is further evidence that pro-Europeans must act now to make the case for Europe
The next general election in the UK is not expected until 2015, so it would be unwise to read too much into the results of the three by-elections which took place recently. Nonetheless, the results do provide some clues as to how the main parties are faring almost two and a half years into the current government’s term. Labour’s victories in all three seats –Rotherham, Middlesbrough and Croydon North – had been expected, but the convincing margin of the swing towards Labour – ranging from 9 percent to 16 percent in all three seats – indicate the party is beginning to claw back some of the popularity which it shed in the last general election.
Labour supporters might also take encouragement from the Liberal Democrats’ continued electoral misfortunes. The Liberal Democrats lost votes across all three contests in comparison to its general election outing in 2010, even slumping to eighth place in Rotherham, a performance widely labelled in the British press as the “worst ever by a major political party.”
Nonetheless, the main story to emerge from these by-elections was the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) strong showing. The party exceeded expectations in Middlesbrough and Croydon North by finishing second and third respectively. The biggest shock came in Rotherham, where they trailed Labour, but gained 22 percent of the vote – their highest ever share of the vote in a by-election.
Perhaps more significant is where UKIP’s votes came from. By and large, the party, whose predominant campaigning issue is the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union, was successful in soaking up the backing of those voters deserting the Liberal Democrats. This was to the detriment of the Conservative Party, who witnessed their vote drop in each of the three seats as a result.
Unsurprisingly, it is in championing its principal cause – Euroscepticism – that UKIP looks set to have its greatest influence on the direction of British politics. With every strong electoral outing, the party puts ever greater pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to insert a promise to hold a referendum on Europe in the Conservative Party’s manifesto in 2015. This would help him secure the votes of an ever growing number of Eurosceptic voters across the country and placate those dissenting Tory backbenchers who are desperate to repatriate powers from Brussels.
Yet UKIP’s mounting popularity reflects a growing wave of support for Euroscepticism that should also worry Labour and the Liberal Democrats, both of which are officially in favour of Britain’s membership in the European Union. In particular, it should act as a further call to action for Labour, whose leaders have recently shown an inclination to bury their heads in the sand over Europe. While it is admittedly rare for a party in opposition to resist the chance to inflict a defeat on a government when offered the chance, Labour’s recent decision to join forces with the Tory right to force through an amendment calling for a “real-terms” reduction in the 2014-20 EU budget reeked of rank opportunism.
Last week’s by-election results provide added evidence that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats can no longer afford to avoid spelling out a clear position when it comes to Europe. As Labour peer and former EU Commissioner for Trade Peter Mandelson recently outlined in an article for Policy Network think tank, “The time for fence sitting is over.” In a recent speech at the CBI Conference, Ed Miliband himself warned about the danger of Britain “sleepwalking” to the EU exit door. An Opinium poll has found that 56 percent of people would probably or definitely vote for the UK to go it alone if they were offered the choice in a referendum. This shows that pro-Europeans’ silence on the issue has allowed Eurosceptics in parties such as UKIP to wrest control of the debate on Britain’s role in Europe and fight it – successfully – on their own battleground. Scaremongering declarations impugning the blame for the UK’s domestic woes on Brussels diktats have been allowed to go unchallenged for too long.
With the EU currently in a state of flux as it pursues the reforms necessary to address structural deficiencies laid bare by the Eurozone crisis, it may be tempting for pro-Europeans to adopt a ”wait-and-see” approach before bringing the issue of Europe to the forefront of the public’s attention. But this would be folly. If UKIP continues its ascent, the prospect of a referendum on Britain’s EU membership following the next general election is becoming increasingly likely. If pro-Europeans fail to act soon, they may find that Eurosceptic feeling in Britain has become so entrenched that their arguments fall on deaf ears when they eventually try to explain why our interests are best served inside the EU rather than outside it.