Of the two parties that held their annual conferences last week, one has the better claim to reflect public opinion, and it is not the Liberal Democrats. Fun though it might have been to watch Godfrey Bloom, a Member of the European Parliament, hit Michael Crick, the Channel 4 News reporter, over the head with a brochure, the UK Independence Party cannot be dismissed as a joke.
Our ComRes poll today suggests that Ukip would win 17 per cent of the vote in a general election, almost twice as much as the Lib Dems, on 9 per cent. In the European Parliament elections in May next year, the bookmakers say Ukip is more likely to win a larger share of the vote than any other party. Rather than enjoying the paradox that Ukip will therefore win many seats in an assembly it wants to abolish and none at all in a House of Commons it thinks should be our sole authority, the older parties should recognise that a lot of voters are trying to tell them something.
The Independent on Sunday has always been proud of the UK's membership of the European Union, but we recognise three related challenges. One is the long-standing failure of the EU to maintain the democratic consent on which it ought to rest. Another is the influx to Britain of workers from new member states over the past nine years. And the third is the state of the euro, especially since the Greek crisis that coincided with our last election. Since that election, the Ukip surge has gathered pace.
Some of the success of Nigel Farage's party reflects an anti-politics mood that can no longer find expression in the Liberal Democrats, but, again, it would be foolish to dismiss Ukip's popularity as a mere protest vote. Nor is Ukip's success solely to do with hostility to the EU: the party represents the feeling that Britain is not the country it once was, a reaction against everything from gay marriage to wind turbines. But our relation to the EU is at the core.
For reasons of rather obvious self-interest, David Cameron has been the first leader of the established parties to take the threat from Ukip seriously. But he would be right to do so even if Ukip did not take more votes from the Tories than the other parties. Opinion polls suggest that the Prime Minister's strategy of renegotiating the terms of British membership of the EU, and then holding a referendum, could well secure a "Yes" vote for keeping us in the EU. This is significant, because since 2010, there has been a majority in this country for withdrawal on a question about how people would vote in a referendum "tomorrow" – that is, without renegotiation.
We are not yet convinced by the timetable for Mr Cameron's referendum – by the end of 2017 – but the democratic principle is right. The time is approaching when British and other Europeans should be asked to renew their consent for the shape of the EU, when the future of the euro and the political arrangements needed to sustain it are settled. The European Parliament has little democratic credibility: a direct mandate is needed instead.
Mr Cameron is likely to be assisted in his endeavours by the re-election of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, in her country's elections today. If so, it will soon become necessary for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to set out how they would secure Britain's European future. Ed Miliband, the stage is yours.