The United Kingdom looks almost certain to take part in May’s European Parliament elections, voting for 73 new MEPs, ostensibly for the 2019-2024 sitting. The unprecedented (and slightly farcical) situation has arisen due to the failure of Parliament to vote for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement or for an alternative which would see Britain leave before the vote is held on May 23, with the EU granting an extension until October 31, 2019 on the condition that Britain takes part.
Yet the vote will be significant. It will have more symbolic than practical value, as it is unlikely that any elected officials will serve as MEPs for very long due to Britain’s impending exit, meaning many voters are likely to be tempted to shun traditional party loyalties. More importantly, it will also act as a gauge of UK public opinion on Brexit – potentially even imitating a second referendum – and may well influence the direction the government takes subsequently.
Given the government’s failure to deliver Brexit, the election is highly favourable to the radical right, although it is worth stating that the radical right has always overperformed in European Parliament elections. Ukip, who have never breached 14% nationally in UK Parliament elections, won the most votes in the 2014 EU election, gaining just short of 27% and came second in 2009.
Even the extremist BNP (who have never gained more than 1.9% in a General Election) achieved their best electoral results in EU elections, gaining just under 1 million votes (6%) in 2009. European Parliament elections have typically been used as a ‘protest’ election where voters can express dissatisfaction at the government and the EU. Given Britain’s tradition of popular Euroscepticism (exemplified by the narrow majority vote to leave the EU in June 2016) this has meant ample votes for Eurosceptic parties and this one promises to be no different.
A vote for Farage, a vote for democracy
The radical right enters the election split in two, between Nigel Farage’s recently founded Brexit Party and the party he led to victory in the previous election, Ukip. Farage stood down as leader of Ukip after the vote to leave the EU in 2016 and left the party in December 2018. His stated reasons for leaving were a rejection of Ukip’s lurch to the xenophobic radical right under anti-Islamist leader Gerard Batten. Whilst I have written before how Ukip under Nigel Farage always resorted to inflammatory rhetoric on issues such as immigration and multiculturalism and the party always harboured extremists, it is clear that Ukip under Batten has significantly moved to the right. They have been described by Farage as ‘thugs and extremists’.
Farage’s former party have already acted as a remarkably useful foil for him to deny his own links to the radical right and allows himself to be painted as a ‘moderate’ figure (he is anything but). The Brexit Party – seeking the broadest appeal possible – has thus focused the early phase of their campaign on a populist message which criticises elites and ‘the establishment’ for not delivering Brexit, arguing that a vote for him is merely a vote for democracy. Given Farage’s media savvy, previous record of success in EU Parliamentary election campaigning and the large number of disgruntled voters, particularly the millions who voted to leave the EU, it is almost certain that the Brexit Party will gain the most votes out of all pro-Brexit parties. It will also probably top the polls overall given the splintered nature of pro-Remain parties.
Ukip’s campaign has got off to a shaky start and has already been dogged by accusations of extremism. Out of 24 MEPs elected for the party in 2014, only three remain – with the majority defecting to Farage’s Brexit Party recently. Their move to the conspiratorial, Islamophobic and downright racist fringe has already been demonstrated during the early phase of this election through the selection of ‘Youtubers’ with links to the white supremacist US ‘alt-right’ movement – Carl Benjamin (aka Sargon of Akkad) and Mark Meechan (aka Count Dankula) as candidates. Both have a history of extremism, particularly Benjamin, who has already been widely criticised for recorded rants where he uses the ‘N’ word, criticism of the Jewish community and for Tweeting Labour MP Jess Phillips: "I wouldn't even rape you.... feminism is cancer."
The party has no clear message that distinguishes itself from Farage’s Brexit Party – other than criticism of Farage as a careerist. Batten has spent most media interviews denying accusations of the party’s racism and defending previous criticisms on Islam and his decision to appoint EDL founder Tommy Robinson as an ‘advisor’ on ‘Muslim grooming gangs’. Whilst the party’s core vote of 5-7% may hold up, unless the party finds a distinctive appeal and audience not tempted by the Brexit Party, Ukip are likely to come a distant second in the race to be the leading pro-Brexit party. It may even find itself in a lowly position overall, surely making existential debates about the party’s future inevitable.
Finally, a word on Tommy Robinson, who announced on April 25 that he would stand in the European elections as an independent candidate in North West England. Robinson lamented in a recent video on his YouTube channel over his frustrated desire to stand as a candidate for Ukip. Robinson is not a member and the party’s NEC had forbidden a vote on allowing him in as a member due to his previous connections to the English Defence League and his British National Party membership. Despite his high profile, particularly online, it is highly unlikely he will receive enough votes to be elected with competition from the Brexit Party and Ukip. However, he will use his candidature as a platform to promote racism and Islamophobia, which could attract many of his followers to potentially violent street demonstrations. His standing for election has greater implications for public order than on wider politics, given his pariah status which should be no less concerning.
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