Britain's anti-Europe party UKIP is celebrating its strong showing in local council elections yesterday – a result it hopes will translate into similar gains when results from a second vote yesterday for Britain's representation in the European Parliament are announced.
Nigel Farage, UKIP's charismatic leader, claimed his anti-EU and anti-immigration party had become the "fox in the Westminster hen house" after gaining nearly 90 seats in early results, mostly at the expense of the ruling Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.
But while the immediate gaze is on the local outcomes, national politicians here are keenly focused on Sunday night's EU results, which could see UKIP become Britain's largest party, by popular vote, in Brussels.
A Sun newspaper poll of British votes for the European Parliament put UKIP in the lead at 27 percent, followed by Labour at 26 percent, Conservatives at 22 percent, and Lib Dems with 9 percent. Under the European Parliament proportional representation system, that would likely give UKIP and Labour each 22 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament), Conservatives 16 of the 73 seats available, and their coalition partners just three.
Ben Page of polling firm Ipsos MORI says the results could be a watershed moment in domestic and possibly European politics. But he adds a cautionary note.
“UKIP has become the fourth party in British politics in the way the Greens have never been," he says, "but there is no correlation between a European election with its proportional representation and a general election. It is entirely possible that in next year’s general election they will end up with not one parliamentary seat.”
He sees a vote for UKIP as a protest vote against the established parties. “It’s a negative vote, a protest vote against inequality, unfairness, disenchantment with the establishment parties. Apart from withdrawal from Europe and immigration, voters don’t scrutinize their other policies.
“Interestingly, in polls people still want to stay in Europe, but a big swing to UKIP and across Europe might force the oil tanker that is the EU to move to reform quicker.”
He says voting for UKIP in the EU election, with the party’s main aim of being elected to the very body it is seeking to leave, is comparable to the Tea Party in the United States and its dislike of the federal government.
Clive Church, professor of European Studies at Kent University, says the UKIP forecasts could spell problems for Prime Minister David Cameron if or when he negotiates EU reforms. He has promised an in-or-out EU referendum in the next parliament if he is elected in the 2015 general election.
“UKIP will be no help when Cameron negotiates with Europe on reform, being obstructive and just prancing around Brussels and not looking after Britain’s interests like they usually do," Professor Church says. "They will also put pressure on him in his own party, encouraging the euro skeptic wing to be more vocal.
“We will have to see how other right wing, anti-Europe parties do, but it seems that Geert Wilders’ [far right Party for Freedom] in the Netherlands hasn’t done as well as predicted.”
Church claimed that success in local elections might also tie UKIP down. He adds: “They’re doing well in local polls, taking seats from the Conservatives in the south and Labour in the north where the Tories have never done well and are viewed as class enemies. But winning in local elections may take up their energies in decision-making, doing deals and developing sensible policies rather than concentrating on their main aim of withdrawing from Europe.”