In the week of the elections to the European Parliament, here are the results of the previous six such elections in the UK, with a couple of notes.
1989 (turnout: 36 per cent)
1. Labour (38.7 per cent, 6.15 million)
2. Conservative (33.7 per cent, 5.36 million)
3. Green (14.5 per cent, 2.30 million)
4. Social & Liberal Democrats (5.9 per cent, 0.94 million)
5. SNP (2.6 per cent, 0.41 million)
6. DUP (1.0 per cent, 0.16 million)
We were two years into Margaret Thatcher’s third term in office, ten years since she’d first been elected as prime minister, so unsurprisingly Labour topped the poll. Even so, the Conservatives came a creditable second – after the excitement of the SDP/Liberal Alliance attempting to break the mould of British politics, things had settled back down again, with the two main parties sharing 72 per cent of the vote.
The Liberal Party and the SDP had merged the previous year to form what was initially known as the Social and Liberal Democrats. But some hadn’t taken to the idea and hadn’t signed up to the new party. The result was a state of confusion with the co-existence of the SLD, led by Paddy Ashdown, and the SDP, led by David Owen. The usual recipient of the protest vote being unclear, the Greens had a moment in the sun, with a surprise showing that seemed to announce them as a potential political force in Britain. It was a false dawn: they’ve not got close to this since.
1994 (turnout: 36 per cent)
1. Labour (42.6 per cent, 6.75 million)
2. Conservative (26.8 per cent, 4.27 million)
3. Lib Dem (16.1 per cent, 2.56 million)
4. SNP (3.1 per cent, 0.49 million)
5. Green (3.0 per cent, 0.47 million)
6. DUP (1.0 per cent, 0.16 million)
Although Thatcher had gone, the Tories were still in office, with John Major as prime minister, fifteen years into a protracted period of government. The end was in sight, though, and they’d clearly lost the public. Meanwhile the SLD had rebranded themselves as the Liberal Democrats, had seen off David Owen’s SDP, and had returned to their conventional role as the third party.
Here’s a thing: This is the only national election ever won by Labour under a female leader. In the period between John Smith’s death and Tony Blair’s anointment, Margaret Beckett was the acting leader.
1999 (turnout: 24 per cent)
1. Conservative (33.5 per cent, 3.58 million)
2. Labour (26.3 per cent, 2.80 million)
3. Lib Dem (11.9 per cent, 1.27 million)
4. UKIP (6.5 per cent, 0.70 million)
5. Green (5.3 per cent, 0.57 million)
6. SNP (2.5 per cent, 0.27 million)
Turnouts in European elections are always bad, but this one was shockingly poor – down a third on the previous two polls. Levels returned thereafter, though it was perhaps a sign of things to come in: turnout in Westminster elections dropped dramatically on Tony Blair’s watch.
Also a sign of things to come was the election of three MEPs representing UKIP. Among them was the party’s leader – and congratulations to you if you remember that he was Michael Holmes. He didn’t hang around for long, mind: the following year the party had one of its many leadership fits and he took his leave, staying on as an Independent. The other two MEPs were UKIP’s next leader, Jeffrey Titford, and the future leader, Nigel Farage.
The fact that the party managed to get three candidates elected, incidentally, was because this was the first time that proportional representation was used across the whole country (previously it had been used only in Northern Ireland).
2004 (turnout: 38.5 per cent)
1. Conservative (25.9 per cent, 4.40 million)
2. Labour (21.9 per cent, 3.72 million)
3. UKIP (15.6 per cent, 2.65 million)
4. Lib Dem (14.4 per cent, 2.45 million)
5. Green (5.6 per cent, 0.95 million)
6. BNP (1.5 per cent, 0.81 million)
The story here was clearly the rise of UKIP. Now under Roger Knapman, who had served as a Tory MP for ten years, the party was a better run organization and attracted two million more votes, to overtake the Lib Dems. As it happens, though, Charles Kennedy’s party – as the prime opponents of the invasion of Iraq – also improved both its vote and its share. So maybe the real story was that, in European elections at least, England was becoming a multi-party state. In 1994 the spread across the top four parties was nearly 40 percentage points; now it was less than 12.
2009 (turnout: 35 per cent)
1. Conservative (27.4 per cent, 4.28 million)
2. UKIP (16.0 per cent, 2.50 million)
3. Labour (15.2 per cent, 2.38 million)
4. Lib Dem (13.3 per cent, 2.08 million)
5. Green (7.8 per cent, 1.22 million)
6. BNP (6.0 per cent, 0.94 million)
David Cameron’s Conservatives were riding high, as New Labour’s time in office staggered to a close under Gordon Brown. But they were not the only beneficiaries of Brown’s unpopularity: two parties to the right of the Tories – UKIP and the BNP – picked up another 22 percentage points between them. Farage was now UKIP leader and he didn’t get quite as many votes as had Knapman five years earlier. He did, though, become the first party leader to break the old duopoly; this was the first national election since 1918 in which anyone except Tory or Labour finished in the top two. Which is a hell of an achievement.
2014 (turnout: 36 per cent)
1. UKIP (26.6 per cent, 4.38 million)
2. Labour (24.4 per cent, 4.02 million)
3. Conservative (23.1 per cent, 3.80 million)
4. Green (6.9 per cent, 1.14 million)
5. Lib Dem (6.6 per cent, 1.09 million)
6. SNP (2.4 per cent, 0.39 million)
And then there was this, an extraordinary result that saw UKIP again picking up nearly two million more votes. This wasn’t meant to happen. The previous year, panicked by the rise of UKIP and by murmurings amongst Eurosceptics in his own party, Cameron had promised a referendum on EU membership in the event that the Tories won the next election. That was supposed to neuter the threat from the anti-EU right, but it did precisely the opposite: it ensured that the issue was now on the mainstream agenda, and UKIP took full advantage.
Just as significant, perhaps, was the poor showing of Labour. Four years into the Coalition government, four years of public spending cuts imposed by a load of public schoolboys, with the Lib Dems now tainted, and Ed Miliband’s Labour couldn’t even top the poll. The Tories and UKIP between them had over half the vote.
Obviously, the main development over the last thirty years has been the decline of the two main parties. These elections are largely viewed by the electorate as being unimportant, an opportunity to register dissent: the party in power in Westminster hasn’t won a European vote since 1984. What’s changed is that the protest has increasingly been against the established parties as a whole, not just the one in government.
Also striking is the complete failure of the Greens to break through, despite that big moment in 1989. Their performance since then has been a striking lesson in how not to make progress. Nigel Farage, on the other hand, has achieved something quite unique. Admittedly, he inherited a party that already had some presence, but no one else could have taken UKIP to these heights. And, presumably, that will be confirmed this week, when his new venture, the Brexit Party, tops the polls at the expense of his previous outfit.
One irony worth noting: the rise of Farage is entirely thanks to the way that the EU insisted we have proportional representation for its Parliament. Left to our own first-past-the-post devices, we’d never have let them get this grip on the political process.