Ouch. My first thoughts on the European election results for the four main parties

by Stephen Tall on May 26, 2014

The results are all but in (Scotland will formal declare later today) and the scores on the doors make depressing reading for the Lib Dems – here’s the BBC’s breakdown:

euro elections 2014

Here are 5 quick points:

1) A good night for Ukip

Fair do’s to Farage: he inverted the usual expectations management game by vowing Ukip would top the poll, and they did. Their share of the vote, 27.5%, means they become the first party since 1906 to beat both the Conservatives and Labour. They’ve gained at least 10 MEPs, and may add another in Scotland. The local elections were not, despite the media hype, a dazzling success for Ukip: but the Euros have proved to be nothing less than a triumph.

The question now is whether this is as good as it gets for Ukip and their vote declines over the next 11 months, or whether they can sustain their third place in the Westminster polls. One of the most interesting things will be seeing Ukip come up with a general election manifesto. Farage himself has cheerfully admitted to only two policies: being anti-EU and pro grammar schools. How will the party bridge its right-libertarian origins and their new influx of ‘Red Ukip’ supporters?

2) A disappointing night for Labour

For a while last night, it looked like Labour might end up in third place for the second successive European election. In the end, their excellent results in London saved them: they edged in front of the Tories by just 1%, winning 25.4% of the vote. The general election is in less than a year’s time but Labour has produced disappointing results in both the local and European elections, and is only a nose in front in the opinion polls. True, Lord Ashcroft’s latest poll of the marginals has happier news for Ed Miliband’s party – they lead in their top targets – but the equivalent poll a this stage of the parliament in 2009 suggested the Tories were on course for a solid 70-seat majority, and look what happened.

Only some of the blame can, I think, be laid at Miliband’s door. The economy was always likely to recover, and with it Tory fortunes. The Labour leader has clutched hold of the pendulum, which worked when it was swinging his way, but there’s little he can do now it’s swinging back.

3) A surprisingly okay result for the Tories

It’s not that the Tories did well: they didn’t. They polled just one-quarter of the national vote came third, and lost seven MEPs. But defeat had long since been priced-in and when it came it was less bad than expected. On New Year’s Eve, I predicted the Euro election results. Ukip and Labour I got more or less spot-on (I reckoned 26% and 25% respectively), but the Tories I thought would be pegged back at 18%. In fact, they won 23.9% of the vote, down only 4% o five years ago when they were in opposition, and they held on to 19 of their MEPs.

As I argued here, David Cameron has done an effective job of “winning the war of framing the Europe debate”, triangulating between the fervently anti-EU Ukip and pro-EU Lib Dems, hitting the electoral sweet spot of moderate Euroscepticism. As a result, the Tories finished just 2.5% behind Ukip. In the circumstances, that’s impressive.

4) A catastrophic result for the Lib Dems

Fifth place behind the Greens and a possible wipeout of all our MEPs had long been a possibility, though it was one I thought we’d avoid. And we did, just: Catherine Bearder just held onto a seat in the South East of England. For a short time, Nick Clegg’s ‘Party of IN’ strategy and his laying down of the gauntlet to Nigel Farage seemed to have worked, raising party morale and shoring up the party’s vote. Even after the first televised debate, it seemed to be working, with Clegg’s arguments persuading Lib Dem and Labour voters, while Farage appealed to Ukip and Tory voters. Then came the second debate: Clegg had an off night at the worst possible moment, Farage was widely judged to have bested him even by Lib Dem members, and the rest is electoral history. We have lost 10 of our 11 MEPs, recording just 6.9% of the vote. You have to go back to 1989, another Euro election, to find a worse Lib Dem result.

In one sense, this shouldn’t surprise us. The party rarely does well in European elections: in 2009, we polled just 14%; a year later, at the general election, we hit 23%. Past performance is no guarantee of future failure. However, it’s entirely understandable why party members are questioning the leadership in these circumstances: Nick Clegg put himself front and centre and will know better than anyone he will be held accountable. I wrote last month that this was the scenario – mixed local election results, a dire Euro performance – in which he himself might decide the party would do better with another leader. However, he shows no signs of being a quitter. And I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument from those calling for Nick Clegg to go that doesn’t fall apart after the statement, “Clegg should go”. My guess is the party will end up sticking by the devil it knows.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.