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Labour hurtles into history's abyss

It is the end of Britain's affair with Labour – but Ukip poses a real threat to Cameron's Tories

When the secrets of the European ballot boxes were unveiled on Sunday night, they contained one message: the electorate has fallen out of love with Labour.

The results were remarkable for the similarity of the outcome to the result of the last Euro election, but for one exception – a precipitous fall in Labour support.

At 23 per cent, the 2004 baseline that Labour was defending already constituted the party's worst performance in a nationwide election. It seemed like a floor below which the party's support could not possibly fall. Yet this year it fell by no less than seven points, to a little under 16 per cent.

Records tumbled. In Wales, Labour's share of the vote fell by 12 points, enabling the Tories to gain first place on a vote increase of less than two points. Labour has not lost an election in Wales since 1931, and then only to a coalition of Conservatives and Liberals.

In Scotland, the SNP came first in a European election for the first time. Labour's share of the vote, at just under 21 per cent, was lower than in any election since it first began fighting elections as an independent party in 1918.

In Cornwall, part of the South West region, Labour came seventh, falling behind even the local nationalists, Mebyon Kernow.

Labour spokespersons had a ready explanation for the disaster: that as the party in office, it was paying the inevitable price for the recession and the public's anger over the expenses scandal.

Trouble is, Labour's support rose last autumn when the credit crunch broke, and the Conservatives avoided similar punishment for their involvement in the expenses scandal. Perhaps a more convincing explanation is that the public has lost confidence in the Government's ability to handle the two main problems confronting it.

But if Labour had reason to regret the difference between the 2004 and 2009 results, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives will have wished the result had been more dis-similar. The relatively Europhile Liberal Democrats again found the climate of Euro elections to be inhospitable. Their vote slipped by a point and they finished an embarrassing fourth.

The Conservatives' vote did increase, but by only one point to a little under 29 per cent, well below what it needed to demonstrate it was on course for Downing Street.

The obstacle in its way was Ukip, many of whose votes appear to have come from those who might have been expected to vote Conservative. David Cameron must have hoped his Eurosceptic stance would ensure that Ukip did not repeat its 2004 success of winning 16 per cent of the vote. But Ukip's vote edged up by 0.3 per cent.

Ukip is unlikely to mount such a strong performance in a Westminster election. But the credibility it has gained in this poll could increase its chances of repeating in the next election its 2005 performance of winning just over 2 per cent. In a tight election, the loss of votes this represents for the Conservatives could prove critical. So, while Mr Brown may have been the most embarrassed by Ukip on Sunday night, in the longer run it could be Mr Cameron who will have most reason to regret their success.

The BNP made the breakthrough into parliamentary politics that its opponents had feared, winning seats in the North West and Yorkshire & Humber. Its critical attitude towards Muslims seems to have paid dividends again among working-class voters in the North of England.

But the scale of the BNP's success should not be exaggerated. Its vote increased by little more than one percentage point. Among the non-Westminster parties, it was the Greens whose vote advanced most, though the two-point increase in its support failed to bring them any reward in seats.

For some it will be the collective success of the smaller parties that is the most striking outcome of the election. They won as much as two in every five votes, even higher than the one in three votes they won in 2004. Here it would seem is confirmation of the disenchantment with Westminster politics that has been stimulated by the expenses scandal.

Any such disillusion does not seem to have discouraged voters from voting at all. At 34.3 per cent the turnout was in line with the admittedly low norm for European elections. This was a four-point drop on 2004 but nearly all of the decline can be accounted for by the absence of postal ballots.

Britons may not have been rushing to the polls last week, but at least they did not exhibit any new-found reluctance to participate in the democratic process.

John Curtice is a professor of politics at Strathclyde University