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Home Opinion What do the European elections mean for British politics?
State of the LeftUK

What do the European elections mean for British politics?

John McTernan - 28 May 2014

Here are some observations.

1. Britain now has multi-party politics

Five parties are competitive across the UK - Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Greens and UKIP. In addition there are nationalist parties in Scotland - the SNP - and Wales - Plaid Cymru. And a proven ability for the ultra-left to win seats when they have a charismatic leader - George Galloway or Tommy Sheridan.

2. This reflects the decline in support for the two main political parties

Labour and the Tories now compete for only 70% of the vote. This is not because of some '35% strategy' on Labour's part. It's the consequence of a long-term secular decline in party alignment. It is now 22 years since the Tories won over 40% in an election. And 13 years since Labour did. Or to put it more bluntly - the Tories have been under 40% since Microsoft released Windows 3.1 and Labour since before Facebook launched.

3. Yet, the British electoral system is built for two parties

A First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system gives a huge bonus to parties who can spread their vote efficiently across the country. That party - currently - is Labour. The 2005 General Election saw them win a 65 seat majority on 36% of the vote. Similarly, in 2010 Labour's second worst General Election result still deprived the Tories of a majority. This is not a biased system. The Tories are punished for being unpopular in Scotland, Wales, the North, the cities, London. That's not unfair - that's democracy. Where, I hear you ask, do Conservatives do well? Regional, rural England. Good luck trying to form a government from the green sward where no-one lives.

4.  Ah, London

Everyone admits London is the key, the fulcrum.

There are two points of view on London. First, London is different. Second, London is different. Yes they're the same observation - London is younger, better educated, more diverse. For UKIP that's the problem, for the rest of us that's the solution. There is no doubt that migration means growth - in population and economically. And it means change - which is unequivocally to be celebrated.

The 21st century is great. More democracies than ever in history. More people taken out of poverty than ever in history. Not by capitalism red in tooth and claw, but by the capitalism created by social democrats. Compare Singapore or China as they grew - they did not let people live as the Manchester workers observed by Marx and Engels did. Their welfare was a concern. They live better because we won big battles last century.

Progressives are for the future and for hope, we should never concede and never give up.

And we are winning.

5. Because all cities are different

Urbanisation - which is the single greatest global force - makes social democrats of all of us.

An American demographer once said to me that there's a moment in ex-urban densification when you see voters stop caring about the right to bear arms and start demanding the right to mass transit.

The point is - when you live together, you work and thrive together. Or to be more pointed - they are not Romanians living next door when their kids are in your child's class. Then, they're Mums and Dads.

In a way, all urbanisation is rapid socialisation. And we are all of us social beings. None of us are born to be intolerant - that is taught and learned.

So, cities are our future.

It was not just London that rejected UKIP but Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. Why? Because they face the future - because they are the future. William Gibson once observed that the future is here already - it's just unequally distributed.  He was right - but politically we have to manage the past and the future.

Which is not to say that progressive change is inevitable; there is a need to make the argument and we should have the faith to make it.

There is nothing wrong with UKIP voting parts of England that a solid dose of migration wouldn't fix.


6. Capitulation on immigration kills the left

Honestly, I can't work out what the position of those on the urban left who want to make concessions on migration.

Is it just wrong?

Or wrong and stupid?

Or wrong and stupid and malicious?

OK, not that complicated. All of the above. Plus, did I mention stupid?

Back to basics.

First, we are against discrimination of any sort - so when the voters are wrong, we should challenge them.

Second, we are the party of the future, the party of open-ness.

Third, because of this - and our broader values - migrants vote Labour up to the Nth generation. Not out of gratitude, but out of self-interest.

7. Don't chase votes you can't get

There is no benefit from veering to the right to try to get votes you won’t win. Remember the lesson of fighting Trots? You can't out-left the ultra-left. They do not fight on the terrain of rationality with you. They fight in the realms of impossibility. Every move you make towards them they take the territory you gave up and ask for more. There is no 'deal' with them - just hunt or be hunted. My advice? Be the hunter.

The Tory Party have tried appeasement. It doesn't work. Give an inch, UKIP take a mile. Remember the lesson Margaret Thacher taught us - and Blair learnt so well? You only win in Britain from the centre ground.

8. Which means Ed Miliband will be the next Prime Minister

Ultimately, the local elections and the European elections say one thing and one thing only - Labour will form the next government with a majority.

Cut it any way you like. In London Labour won the seats that are 83rd and 93rd on its target list. Across the country it won 3 out of 4 of the seats it needs to form a government.

9. And it was the Tories that locked Ed Miliband in as PM

Not because they have abandoned the centre ground - though they have.

But because they opposed electoral reform.

The most vicious opponents of electoral reform - the Alternative Vote (AV) proposed in the referendum - were the Tories.

For once we can truly say - they made their bed, let them lie on it.

10. Not complacency, but purpose

There are loads of reasons for British progressives to celebrate the European elections. There's the positive - where diversity has been welcomed, we have prospered. Then there's the glorious irony that Scotland has a UKIP MEP. It turns out that London is more progressive than Scotland - and while nationalists want to break up Britain, Londoners want to unite.

No, it's not the good news that should inspire us but the challenge. As that great Essex poet once wrote over 1000 years ago:

'Our hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant/our spirits must be greater'

We have a future to win.

John McTernan is a commentator and political strategist who works internationally. He was Political Secretary to Tony Blair and most recently was the Director of Communications for Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard

A contribution to State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network's Social Democracy Observatory

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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