John Curtice: A disaster for Labour, but hardly a Tory triumph

Expectations are crucial in politics. By last night, Labour had persuaded the media to expect "heavy losses" in the European elections, and that the party could come fourth – even though not a single opinion poll had ever put the party lower than third. The aim was clear: ensure that anything other than a calamitous performance could be represented as evidence that things were not so bad.

However, calamity was not avoided. Labour was struggling to avoid the ignominy of coming third for the first time in a nationwide vote since 1922. Its share of the vote was easily it lowest-ever score in a nationwide vote since it first started fighting elections as an independent party in 1918. It only managed to top the poll in the deepest of deepest heartland, the North East of England.

True, most parties of government around Europe lost ground. But the drop in Labour's share of the vote as compared with the last general election looks set to be the one of the biggest suffered by any EU governing party. Labour cannot dismiss its reverse as a normal mid-term protest from which it can recover.

Yet for all Labour's difficulties it was far from a night of triumph for David Cameron. The Tory vote was no higher than in 2004, and well down on the 36 per cent William Hague managed in 1999. Hardly a performance to show that the Conservatives are on course for power.

Despite the strongly Eurosceptic tone adopted by David Cameron, voting for the anti-EU Ukip simply proved too tempting a prospect for many voters who might otherwise have voted Tory. Even though this time Ukip did not enjoy the publicity generated by Robert Kilroy-Silk, overall the party still managed to make advances on its 2004 vote.

But UKIP were not the only party to advance. The BNP secured the modest increase in its support it needed in the North of England – the heart of its main strength in recent years – to secure representation in Strasbourg for the first time. This was the one development that none of the other parties wanted. Equally the Greens made a modest advance, but not enough to yield much in the way of extra seats.

Collective support for non-Westminster parties increased beyond the already remarkable one-third recorded in 2004 to no less than two-fifths. The grip of the Westminster parties on the British public has evidently been loosened further by the expenses scandal.

On the other hand, there was little sign of the mass abstention many had anticipated. While turnout fell heavily in places where all-postal ballots were held in 2004 but not this year, elsewhere support fell on average by only a point or so. The parties may not like the voters' verdict, but at least they got one.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University