Battle for Britain's Eurosceptic heart dominates campaigning

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Indy Politics

The elections on "Super Thursday" this week will provide the biggest test of public opinion between general elections. There will be elections in 166 councils in England and Wales and for the London Mayor, but the only contest in which everyone in the United Kingdom will have a vote will be for the European Parliament.

The elections on "Super Thursday" this week will provide the biggest test of public opinion between general elections. There will be elections in 166 councils in England and Wales and for the London Mayor, but the only contest in which everyone in the United Kingdom will have a vote will be for the European Parliament.

In the last such poll five years ago only one in four registered voters bothered to turn out and a similar figure is expected on Thursday. The Tories then mobilised their supporters and won 36 seats, Labour 29, the Liberal Democrats 10, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) three, and the Green Party, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru two each. In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, Ulster Unionist Party and Social Democratic and Labour Party each won one seat.

The number of UK seats has been cut from 87 to 78 and the parties will be keen to match or exceed their share of the vote last time, when the Tories won 36 per cent, Labour 28, the Liberal Democrats 13, UKIP 7, and the Greens 6. The main runners have set out their stands:

LABOUR

Labour has said little about Europe, preferring to run a mini-general election campaign on what it regards as the party's natural territory of public services and the Government's record since 1997. The person who has featured most in Labour's election broadcasts is Michael Howard, as the party attacks his record as a minister and says that the Tories would cut spending by £18bn.

Tony Blair's most significant move on Europe came before the campaign, when he made a surprise pledge to hold a referendum on the proposed EU constitution. Although designed mainly to neutralise the Europe issue at the next general election, the move has also taken the wind out of the Tories' sails in these elections, as they had intended to campaign hard for a referendum.

Labour strategists believe a strong showing by UKIP will harm the Tories more than Labour, although the anti-EU party could appeal to some working-class traditional Labour supporters. "UKIP are the cavalry that could ride to our rescue," one Labour source admitted. However, in the long run UKIP's success may make it even harder for Mr Blair to win a constitution referendum. Labour aides insist, however, that it might make the task easier, enabling the Government to portray the choice as being "in or out".

Expectations for Labour are low since, unlike the Tories, they did poorly in the most recent European election. To slip further back would, however, be an embarrassment, and would inevitably revive the debate about how long Mr Blair should remain Prime Minister.

CONSERVATIVES

Tories had reasons to be cheerful about the prospects for Mr Howard's first test at the ballot box since becoming party leader, but the unexpectedly strong showing in the opinion polls by UKIP has derailed the campaign and reopened the party's long-standing divisions over Europe.

Despite his own Eurosceptic instincts, Mr Howard has resisted calls for him to match UKIP's hardline stance. Although this worked for William Hague at the European elections in 1999, he failed spectacularly when he played the "Europe card" at the following general election.

So Mr Howard is playing a longer game, anxious not to turn off professionals who dislike anti-European rhetoric. He has adopted a middle way between Labour, who he accuses of selling out Britain's interests by never saying "no" to Europe, and UKIP's policy of withdrawal.

In a party election broadcast tonight, the Tory leader will say: "People are telling us you've either got to sign up to everything that comes out of Europe or give up altogether. Well they are wrong. There is an alternative ... We'll make clear that not every country has got to sign up to everything that comes out of Europe."

Tory officials denied that the broadcast was a reaction to UKIP but the fact that they needed to issue the denial illustrates how the Tory campaign has been defined by the anti-European party.

The Tory leader's line has come under increasing pressure from his party's pro- and anti-European wings. Some Eurosceptics want Mr Howard to show his true colours to eclipse UKIP. A YouGov poll published yesterday showed that the Tories were most vulnerable to a UKIP advance, with 25 per cent of Tory supporters saying they will defect to UKIP, compared to 5 per cent of Labour supporters and 4 per cent of Liberal Democrats.

Pro-European Tories are increasingly uncomfortable, arguing that the party's attacks on the EU have provided a platform for UKIP. David Curry, a former minister, said: "The party will get nowhere by competing with UKIP; it needs to contest it, challenge it and confront it."

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

The Liberal Democrats have been stung by predictions that they could come fourth place behind UKIP. Charles Kennedy, their leader, said he expected the party to keep the seats held by their 10 MEPs and probably gain a few more. He has defended his decision to fight the election on the Government's policy on Iraq, while playing down the euro, and urged voters not to believe the polls.

The Yougov poll put the Liberal Democrats on 15 per cent of the total vote, behind UKIP's 19 per cent. The party has been polling far below its usual national vote, which has consistently exceeded 20 per cent. For the UK's most pro-European party to finish behind UKIP would be a disastrous result for Mr Kennedy, who has boosted the party's electoral fortunes since becoming leader.

Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrat's director of campaigns and strategy, was confident yesterday, however, that the party was on course to build on its tally of 10 MEPs. Private polling has convinced the party that it has up to 20 per cent of the vote in some areas and a larger share of the vote than five years ago, when the party only gained 12.7 per cent.

The last European elections were a high water mark for the Liberal Democrats, mainly because of the introduction of proportional representation in 1999. Before then, the party only had two MEPs because it found it hard to beat Labour and the Tories in a first past the post race.

This week, the party believes that it will hold all of the 10 seats won in 1999 and it is hopeful of making gains in areas where the party is not represented in Europe, such as the North East. "Our minimum target is to get 10 MEPS and we hope to make gains in the North West, North East, London and the South West," Lord Rennard said. "We are gaining support because of anti-Iraq [war] feeling but also because we are pointing out the environmental benefits of Europe working together."

Today Mr Kennedy will make a last push by stressing again the achievements that he says have been made in Brussels on protecting the environment, including progress in combating global warming.

UNITED KINGDOM INDEPENDENCE PARTY

The surprise package of the campaign has been UKIP, which won three seats at the last European elections five years ago but has not enjoyed a high profile since. A well-funded effort and celebrity backers such as Robert Kilroy-Silk and Joan Collins has enabled it to set the agenda.

Its simple message of withdrawing from the EU has made the party a natural vehicle for Eurosceptics and voters wishing to lodge a protest vote without changing the Government. Its advance in the opinion polls has been remarkable. According to YouGov, among those "very likely" to vote on Thursday, UKIP is on 21 per cent, breathing down the neck of both Labour (24) and the Tories (26) and ahead of the Liberal Democrats (6).

The survey suggests the Tories' attempt to dismiss UKIP as "extremists", "cranks" and "gadflies" may have backfired. If the poll proves accurate, the party could win between 13 and 17 seats on Thursday.

Founded in 1993, the party says its membership has risen from 7,000 to 21,000 in the past year. Five Tory peers publicly supported UKIP, four of whom had the party whip withdrawn.

The party insists it is not anti-European, but simply opposed British membership of the EU which, it claims, "stifles our initiative and threatens our freedom". It is anxious to distance itself from the British National Party, stressing in its literature that it is the "only moderate, democratic party" to advocate withdrawal.

UKIP says: "The leading members of the Tory, Labour and Liberal-Democrat parties all remain committed to continued EU membership. These professional politicians don't want us to run our own country or control our own lives. The UKIP, by contrast, is a moderate, mainstream party which believes in the British people and can offer them a life outside the Euro-state."

The party says that the EU has become increasingly bureaucratic and corrupt, as well as a drain on the UK's resources. Britain's influence is shrinking as the EU expands, it argues.

ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

Brent's verdict: Don't know, don't much care

By Arifa Akbar

Evelyn Mack leans against the doorstep of her detached home and accepts an election leaflet with a barely suppressed sigh.

Syed Kamall, a European parliamentary candidate for the Conservative Party in London, nods politely as Mrs Mack talks about the Europe issue, something she says has passed her by. Even as a stalwart Tory she cannot muster the enthusiasm to vote on 10 June. "The European candidates? I don't know anything about them. I wouldn't know who to vote for, so probably I won't vote,'' she said. The response from Mrs Mack, 59, who lives in Kingsbury, part of the Brent North constituency, is typical of her neighbourhood.

As the son of a Guyanese immigrant father, Mr Kamall, 37, a management consultant, businessman and university lecturer, could truly be considered a self-made man. He says he has been drawn to the Tory party because of its entrepreneurial spirit and what he sees as a balanced approach to Europe.

Mr Kamall has been furiously canvassing, doing walkabouts and leaflet deliveries for the past few months, and his decision to stand is partly motivated by a desire to see greater diversity, ethnic and otherwise, in politics.

He is met by smiling approval by Brent's large Asian community. From a population of 250,000, the last census showed the local authority in north-west London has a majority of people from ethnic backgrounds that are national minorities.

Although the local MP is Labour's Barry Gardiner, affluent Kingsbury, with its significant Asian presence, may hold some promise for Mr Kamall. He has delivered leaflets to some of the 19,000 households that have shown interest. But when it comes to policies, almost everyone displays an apathetic confusion.

Bharti Varsani, 21, a student who is originally from Kenya, knows nothing about the forthcoming election, but likes the look of Mr Kamall's smile. "Europe does not mean much. It is helpful to have an Asian who is standing but policies are important too,'' she said.

As Mr Kamall walks next door he says he is not surprised. "A lot of people do not know there are any elections on. I have talked to people who don't know who the London Mayor is, and this is Ken Livingstone's backyard,'' he says.

Malcolm Rosen, 73, says: "I might vote Conservative in the next election, I don't know yet. As far as the issue of MEPs and Europe goes, I don't trust them.

Mr Kamall cannot be certain about the outcome of his efforts. "I cannot say how these people will vote until we have had the elections," he said.

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