Leading Article: Wrong lessons from the European vote

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The Independent Culture
FAR MORE important than the figures for the share of the vote won by any of the parties in the European Parliament elections is the 23 per cent figure representing that proportion of the Great British electorate that could be bothered to vote at all.

It is a depressing figure, which certainly takes the shine off the more happy-clappy claims of Tony Blair's cheerleaders. The Labour tactic of pinning its European election campaign on Mr Blair's "strong leadership" has come unstuck, which just goes to show what a transient and shallow accolade the "highest opinion-poll ratings in history" confer.

There are two myths about the low turnout, however, that ought to be cut off at the root before they have time to grow. One is that it reflects a wave of anti-euro or anti-Europe hostility that is sweeping the nation and making Britain's joining the single currency unthinkable.

Those who oppose Britain's membership of the European Union had a wide choice of parties to vote for, ranging from the British National Party, through the UK Independence Party, to the Socialist Labour Party - as well as the Conservative Party. The evidence suggests that those who do not like Europe were more likely to vote last week than to stay at home. It is never wise to interpret the motives of non-voters, but it always makes more sense to stick with the old maxim that silence implies consent.

The other myth is that last week's vote somehow represents an emphatic rejection of the new proportional representation system. Certainly, voters hardly flocked to the polling stations happy in the knowledge that, at last, their vote was more likely to count than under the old method. But to assume that people stayed at home because they objected to the closed- list system implies a degree of electoral sophistication that, however desirable, is not yet evident. The most likely explanation for the low turnout is simply relatively contented apathy. That is hardly a message to stitch on to the banner of democracy, but it is a measure of some kind of satisfaction.