Leading article: An electoral debacle that might save Gordon Brown

Voters reveal disenchantment with the PM and growing hostility to Europe

Fears of a Labour meltdown, as it turned out, were not exaggerated. When the UK results of the European elections were all finally in, the party had recorded some of its poorest results not for 20 years, not for 50 years, but ever. And there was worse: the more entrenched Labour was in any given region, the sharper the fall in its support. Labour's vote collapsed right across the north. The party came second to the SNP in Scotland and second in Wales to the Conservatives – the Conservatives, for heaven's sake.

The catastrophe for Labour was undeniable; so much so that party spokespeople, from Harriet Harman down, did not even try to spin it as other than "dismal". It was a catastrophe, what is more, that spelled a future that could be even more gloomy for the party that won power by a landslide in 1997. If Labour is losing its heartland, what price a return to government?

But it is important to distinguish what messages the voting in the European elections did and did not convey, before claims become facts and the wrong lessons are learned. Chief seductive, but wrong, fact is that any one other party did spectacularly well. In terms of share of the total vote, the results for the other parties in the top six showed a remarkable consistency with the results last time round.

Even the UK Independence Party, seen as a great victor on Sunday night, actually saw its share of the vote rise by only 0.3 percentage points. In terms of share of the vote, the Conservatives gained only 1 percentage point, while the Liberal Democrats lost 1.2. The Greens did best, gaining 2.4 percentage points, but that did not translate into more seats in the European Parliament, whereas Ukip's higher vote did.

Which brings us to the second headline of the night, after Labour's disaster: the election of the first – and second – British National Party MEPs. In principle and in practice, there is no getting round it: this represents a signal victory for the BNP and puts Britain's far right in the limelight as it has not been for nigh on 80 years. There can be no doubt either that the election of these two MEPs will be seen in places as lifting a taboo and making an overtly racist somehow more acceptable. It will also give the BNP access to the sort of financial and administrative support it can only have dreamt of as a fringe party in the UK.

Dubious achievement

But the scale of the BNP's dubious achievement must also be put in perspective. Across the country, the party's share of the vote increased by 1.3 percentage points; that is less than, for instance, the increase in the vote for the Christian Party, and slightly more than half the increase achieved by the Greens. In the north west, where the party leader, Nick Griffin, won a seat, their vote actually fell. The BNP won its seats in the European Parliament for the same reason that the Conservatives and Ukip also appeared to do so well: they rode to representation on the back of the Labour Party's debacle.

Taken together, though, the results for these parties say something that should be of great concern for those who believe that the best prospects for Britain lie in Europe and that the shape of the future is cooperation, not isolation. Of those voters who have fallen out with Labour and did not stay at home last week, the vast majority turned not to the Europhile Liberal Democrats, but to Eurosceptic, even Europhobic parties, including ones with a distinctly xenophobic tinge.

We know that such views – which combine hostility and suspicion towards foreigners with a blind faith in the superiority of the British way of doing things – exist in this country today, because their proponents seem increasingly unashamed to voice them. But this is the very opposite of progress in the ever more connected modern world. With the Conservatives withdrawing from the centre-right EPP grouping in the European Parliament, the majority of British MEPs will fall outside the EU mainstream. That cannot serve our national interest.

The persistence, even growth, of Euro-phobia is something that sets Britain apart from the majority of its European partners. And Labour, as a pro-Europe governing party, deserves much of the blame. Not only has it failed abjectly to champion the European cause over its 12 years in power, but it has done far too little to nip the xenophobic tendency in the bud.

Eurosceptic trend

Notwithstanding the strong Eurosceptic strand in British politics, however, the UK's overall voting pattern in EU elections seems to be growing increasingly European. In most of the larger EU countries, the centre right performed strongly – even where these parties were in government. The centre left, for its part, fared abysmally, evidently unable to convince voters that it could have handled the "crisis of capitalism" any more effectively than the centre right. As in Britain, more voters resorted to the margins, but the gains of far-right parties were more modest than expected. They gained seats in 10 of the 27 member states, including the Netherlands, but suffered sharp losses in Belgium, France and Poland. The next European Parliament's centre of gravity will be a little, but not significantly, further to the right.

Viewed from Britain, of course, the relative consistency in Brussels has been eclipsed by the drama in Britain, where the future of the Prime Minister was seen to be – and last night remained – in play. Paradoxically, Labour's disastrous showing could have saved Gordon Brown's skin for the moment, by scaring rebelliously-minded MPs off a change of leader that could precipitate an early election and unseat them. A day after learning that he had led his party to its worst results on record, Gordon Brown may have that same debacle to thank for his survival.