European Elections: Why Labour can't blame `voter fatigue', contentment or PR

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The Independent Online
THE LAWS of political gravity do work after all. For the past two years it has seemed Labour was impregnable and that, for once, a British government would not feel the affliction of mid-term blues.

But last night those blues arrived with a vengeance, when Labour slumped to 28.0 per cent of the vote, lower than the 28.3 per cent it scored under Michael Foot in the 1983 general election. Its defeat was the more startling for being so unexpected. The one poll published last week, by ICM in The Guardian, put Labour on 37 per cent, six points ahead of the Tories.

Separately, ICM did a poll for the BBC that involved re-interviewing people on Thursday and Friday and counting only those who said they had voted. When the BBC's results programme went on air on Sunday, it said only that the election was "too close to call", giving no figures. In fact, the poll put Labour on 33 per cent (five points above their share), the Tories on 31 (five too low), the Liberal Democrats on 17 (four too high) and others on 19 (four too low).

All analysis of the result must be tempered by the low turn-out - 23 per cent across Britain. However, two conventional explanations should be disregarded. It was not caused by "voter fatigue". London has had no other elections this year, yet the turn-out was in line with the national average. Turn-out in Wales was the highest in Britain, at 30 per cent, despite the fact that six weeks ago the Welsh endured local elections and a two-vote contest for its new assembly.

Nor should the turn-out, and Labour's showing, be ascribed to contentment with the Government. Labour had its worst losses in its traditional inner- city areas, where few have mortgages and many live on state benefits. They are the voters who have started to grow disenchanted with the Government but, rather than switch to the Tories or some other party, they made their protest by staying at home.

That said, there are two big reasons why the result is unlikely to lead to Tony Blair's replacement by William Hague at the next general election. First, European elections often produce quirky results. Remember the Greens' 15 per cent in 1989, which was not matched by any other election before or afterwards? European elections are nationwide contests in which no executive power is at stake. They are akin to national by-elections - a chance to send a message to the Government without getting rid of it.

Secondly, the switch to PR made a difference. This is most obvious in the 23 per cent vote for "others"; Nationalists, Greens, UK Independence Party. Voters could, and did, plump for smaller parties, knowing that this time their action need not end up on the scrapheap marked "wasted vote". The evidence is that Labour suffered more than the Tories, with a late switch of some Labour supporters to the Greens. And do not think that the UK Independence Party gained most of its votes at the expense of the Tories. Their strongest region was the South West, where they seem to have picked up support from Liberal Democrats.

Yes, that does seem odd, given the pro-European stand of Paddy Ashdown's party. But polls have shown that up to half of Liberal Democrat voters reject its stance on Europe. The party has garnered anti-Tory protest votes, including from farmers and fishing families who don't like Brussels much but like the Tories even less. This helps explain why the Liberal Democrats fell to third place in one of their parliamentary seats (Devon West and Torridge) and fourth in another (Torbay) - behind the Tories and UKIP in both seats and Labour in the latter.

PR also undid tactical voting, so evident at the general election two years ago. In strong Liberal Democrat areas, where Labour's vote has imploded tactically, Labour retained its 1997 general election share of the vote, while the Liberal Democrat share was down 24 points. Conversely, Labour's vote was down heavily in seats where it benefited from tactical voting two years ago, while the Liberal Democrats clawed back some support.

One other canard can be laid to rest. Before last week Labour believed the new system was bound to cost it dearly. It would have done in 1994 but not last week. Had the same votes been cast in a first-past-the-post election, Labour would have won one extra seat. The big losers are the Tories, who would have won 13 extra; the big gainers are the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the UKIP, who would have won no seats under the old system.

How Britain Voted

Conservative Labour Lib Dem UKIP Green

% change % change % change % %

East Midlands 39.5 4.6 28.6 -19.2 12.8 -0.8 7.6 5.4

Eastern 42.7 3.2 25.2 -13.4 11.9 -5.2 8.9 6.2

London 32.7 1.5 35.0 -14.5 11.7 -2.9 5.4 7.7

North East 27.4 7.6 42.1 -21.9 13.5 0.9 8.8 4.7

North West 35.4 7.8 34.5 -19.1 11.7 -2.8 6.6 5.6

South East 44.4 2.5 19.6 -9.5 15.3 -8.0 9.7 7.4

South West 41.7 5.2 18.1 -8.3 16.5 -14.8 10.6 8.3

West Midlands 37.9 4.2 28.0 -19.0 11.3 -2.5 5.9 5.8

Yorks & Humberside 36.6 8.6 31.3 -20.6 14.4 -1.6 7.1 5.7

Scotland 19.8 2.3 28.7 -16.8 9.8 -3.2 1.3 5.8

Wales 22.8 3.2 31.9 -22.8 8.2 -4.1 3.2 2.6

Great Britain 35.8 4.4 28.0 -16.4 12.7 -4.5 7.0 6.3

"change" = percentage gain or loss in vote share since May 1997