By Cathy Cole
Whilst the scale of the Brexit Party’s surge from nowhere to front-runners in the polls is certainly striking, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a Eurosceptic party has benefited from a substantial protest vote in European Parliamentary elections. Most people have no idea who their MEPs are, or what they do, knowing only that they take a substanial salary and offer little in return. The European elections are generally seen as an opportunity to disrupt the cosy world of the Brussels-based political elite.
This year more than ever, they offer an attempt to register a protest at the very continued existence of British representation in the European Parliament, three years after the electorate voted to Leave.
A recently as 2014, UKIP topped the poll on 27.4%, electing 24 MEPs, with every single region in Britain electing at least one UKIP candidate. Seen in this light, the slump being experienced by both Labour and the Tories in the polls ahead of European elections, only to bounce back, can be seen as representative of a longer trend. It’s worth remembering that at the General Election just a year later, Nigel Farage failed to be elected as an MEP, with only Tory defector Douglas Carswell clinging on to his seat.
The challenge facing Farage’s party is to sustain this protest vote into local and Westminster elections, rather than see it evaporate when people vote in elections they take more seriously. But the chances of his succeeding where UKIP failed should not be discounted.
Such is the anger at Westminster politicians having failed to deliver on the vote to Leave, despite both major parties promising to respect the referendum result in their General Election manifestos, that it would be the height of complacency to simply assume that all will soon revert back to normal. Might we be seeing a reconfiguration of the electoral landscape, particularly in the North of England and the Midlands? The size of the rallies being organised in support of the Brexit Party in traditional Labour heartlands would indicate this is a real danger.
Those Labour MPs criticising the party leadership on the grounds that Corbyn has been insufficiently clear in campaigning for Britain to Remain in the EU (via a “confirmatory vote” on May’s widely-criticised deal), risk playing into the hands of Farage. By positioning Labour amongst the forces vociferously defending the status quo, along with the Metropolitan liberal media, such a move would double-down on the alienation that thousands of voters in traditionally-Labour voting areas feel towards the Westminster political establishment.
Unequivocally backing a second referendum might appease his internal critics, but it could kill stone dead his chances of becoming Prime Minister.