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16 June 1999

Euro non-event

by Bruno Waterfield

The European elections in mid-June showed one thing: those who care about the institutions and politics of the European Union are an unrepresentative minority. The other 77 percent of us are simply not interested. Should we be?

To centre-ground consternation the final result of the Euro non-event seemed to be a triumph for William Hague, but appearances can be deceptive. In reality, Hague benefited from the election's low turnout. The turnout in Labour strongholds was 18 percent, seven percent lower than in Middle England and 10 percent lower than in the leafy Tory strongholds. One polling station in Sunderland attracted just 13 voters during the course of the day. When turnout is so low, and the Labour vote has stayed at home rather than swung to the Conservatives, results should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Hague's victory is based on winning a third of less than a quarter of the electorate's support, ie, eight percent of the total electorate. His party mobilised a tiny constituency of people who think the national identity of the pound is the burning issue in politics today - a dwindling, ageing, social base of traditional Conservatism. A Gallup poll for the Telegraph (4 June) showed that only eight percent of the population thinks that the EU is 'the most urgent problem facing the country at the present time'. Twenty-four percent might think EU membership is a bad thing, but 43 percent think it is good - and 29 percent are completely indifferent. The 'victorious' Tories have been reduced to a single-issue campaign with an appeal limited to the dinosaurs of Tunbridge Wells.

Whatever the extent of Hague's delusions, it is telling that the centre-ground and the presidential Blair failed to inspire - especially traditional Labour voters in urban areas. But it is not surprising - the cynicism and disenchantment with politics that caused voters to stay at home during the Euro elections are no different from the cynicism and disenchantment with politics that New Labour has benefited from. Blair's centre-ground is based on the absence of contest, adversarial politics and principle - he and his cronies much prefer proportional representation, which is about creating consensus through a coalition of minority parties, instead of winning a majority to a particular point of view. Rather than having to win an argument for European integration, New Labour relied on the fact that the electorate does not really care one way or the other - leaving its centre-ground consensus intact.

New Labour's excuses for its lack of electoral support tell us a lot about the lack of principle that underpins politics today: 'voter fatigue'; 'PR change caused confusion' (despite a Home Office leaflet to every household in the land); 'Kosovo drowned everything else out'; the 'politics of contentment' meant that Labour voters stayed at home. Not only are these excuses daft - they are evasive and dishonest. Everything and everybody is to blame, except the politics of the centre-ground. For the Blairites, the electorate is a stage army that is merely supposed to turn up on time and put their crosses in the right box. 'Democracy' is just an adjunct to the consensus - when the vote serves the consensus, all is well; when the vote does not serve the consensus, there must be a problem with the vote. All the talk of 'democratic deficits' and 'voter apathy' is pure hypocrisy.

The European election will not upset the Blair hegemony. It is a result that reinforces the trend towards minority politics, and that will only benefit the metropolitan middle classes that are New Labour's social base. Hague's shallow victory is dependent on single-issue politics and the traditionalist rump of Conservatism, and will not challenge the centre-ground consensus. It is not Europe or the pound we should care about, but the dominance of consensus politics and the unrepresentative minorities on which it relies.

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