In what was a familiar story across the continent, last week’s European elections witnessed a swell of support for Eurosceptic parties in the UK. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) topped the polls with 28% of the vote and 24 out of 73 seats. Labour came in second with 20 MEPs and the Conservatives just behind them on 19. For the Greens, there were many reasons to be cheerful. We finished 4th in the popular vote – ahead of the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s traditional “third party” and the current partner in our national coalition government. Not only did we retain our two existing MEPs – Jean Lambert in London and Keith Taylor in the South-East – but we also expanded our ranks with the election of Molly Scott Cato in the South-West.
Commentators, pollsters, and politicians are now poring over the results of the election – trying to understand where the surge in UKIP support has come from and, most importantly, how to prevent it from following through to next year’s general election.
One simple and compelling explanation for the surge is this: UKIP were given by far the greatest amount of media attention. As our MP Caroline Lucas has written – UKIP’s triumph was a “self-fulfilling story” after the media’s blanket coverage of their campaign squeezed out the other parties. UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage described his party’s impact on these elections as an “earthquake” and it was that framing with which that the papers and television news ran throughout the course of the election campaign. Even on election night, the fact that the Greens had beaten the Liberal Democrats was seen as largely incidental. Whenever this Green triumph was mentioned it slotted into the narrative of the “decline of the political elite” (in this case represented by the Lib Dems) not the rise of an alternative voice in British politics. Everything, it seems, had to be viewed from one of two perspectives: the rise of UKIP or the fall from grace of the three “major” parties.
An additional explanation for UKIP’s popularity is that people are becoming increasingly annoyed with business-as-usual politics – a Europe-wide phenomenon that is not just restricted to our shores. Our current capitalist system, often flaunted as the panacea for the world’s problems, is letting us down. Profit is being put before people. Inequality and poverty is on the rise. Competition and individualism – the central tenets of capitalism – are driving a wedge between our communities and encouraging us to view our neighbours as market competitors. As a result, we feel increasingly insecure and detached from our local and national communities. More and more people are reporting feeling lonely or anxious.
Under such pressures it seems hardly surprising that UKIP’s message should have struck a chord. By promising to cut our ties from Europe they’re giving us an easy response to the challenges of living in an interconnected world: batten down the hatches. Their vision is of a return to the fabled “good old days” when you could say anything, smoke anywhere, and hunt what you liked without interference. We no longer interact as frequently and positively with one another as we once did – making it easier for UKIP to spread their anti-immigrant rhetoric. Lies about “the other” are easier to propagate if people rarely have any interaction with the communities being targeted and victimised. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise therefore that, according to NatCen’s recent findings, racial prejudice is on the rise in the UK.
Although we thankfully largely avoided the label of being a “protest party” – a problem for the Greens throughout the campaign was that a constructive and progressive policies for Europe was never really part of the media debate during this election. Voting on May 22nd was presented merely as a communication tool for expressing discontent with the political establishment. The Greens’ focus during this campaign on our vision for Europe didn’t sit comfortably within that narrative.
But despite this, there are a number of very positive lessons for the Greens that emerge from this election. Firstly, no matter how much coverage UKIP received it was clear that the media largely treated them as a symptom of the British public’s political malaise rather than as a credible solution. This is reflected in polling which has shown that nearly two-thirds of voters don’t know anything about UKIP’s key domestic policies on issues such as the economy and the NHS. It is hard to see how the UKIP bandwagon can continue to roll on with such little fuel in its policy engine.
In contrast, where the Green’s Euro campaign did gain attention the spotlight was shone on our policies and vision for Europe. Here again we have reasons to be optimistic. Much of the discussion in the aftermath of the election has been about what can be done to change the British political system so that voters no longer feel so disaffected: cleaning-up politics, communicating what Europe does that’s good for us and, above all, a novel idea, doing more to listen to the concerns of the voting public.
There is evidently a gap in the political market and the Greens have the policies to fill it. We have a vision that goes beyond a set of unrelated individual policy choices bound-up in a manifesto. Policies such as making the minimum wage a Living Wage, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, promoting sustainable transport and ethical supply chains, increasing the availability of flexible working hours and emphasising quality jobs over just any job are all part of the party’s proposal for creating a more fulfilling and sustainable culture and society. It is about living the change, as well as voting for it, restructuring our economy and changing our societal values.
The obstacle will be in getting that positive message out to the voting public – especially when it is not as black-and-white as the “anti-politics” brand offered by UKIP. But, with an additional MEP and growing popular support amongst the UK public – of whom 1.2 million voted Green – we have the foundations to build-upon. Another chance will come to put the Green’s European case should the scheduled in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU go ahead as planned in 2017. We will need to be ready to push our positive vision as loudly as possible – offering a disillusioned public an alternative voice to that of UKIP whilst distancing ourselves from the tired-old politics of the establishment.
The trick now is to continue to show how our policies and plans can actually tackle the underlying worries and concerns that seem to be affecting British voters and to prove that electing Greens will bring the positive change for which that voters are searching.