16 June 1999
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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