So, you've just sat down at your computer with that Sunday evening cup of tea/Monday morning cup of coffee, and pulled up one of your favorite blogs or internationally-focused news sites, when you glimpsed a story about this past weekend's European Parliament elections. And, if you're like most Americans, you probably scrolled past it in deference to gawking at cute pictures of lolcats. Fair enough; I only paid attention because I wrote a thesis on British involvement in the EU myself.
However, there were some results and issues that I think would be useful to be apprised of, especially in Britain. After the jump, I'll try to go over what exactly happened, and some trends we as liberal Americans might want to keep in the back of our minds.
So wait, what happened?
There are several administrative, judicial, and regulatory bodies that comprise the European Union. They're all interrelated in arcane and complex ways only a bureaucrat could love, and for the most part these groups are responsible to the national governments of the twenty-seven EU member states. There is the European Parliament, however, the membership of which is chosen every five years by a near-simultaneous election in each member state. EU rules mandate that, regardless of how a country may choose own national and local leaders, these elections must be run on a fairly standard system of proportional representation. (This means that voters must cast their ballot for a party, and that each party gets a number of members of European Parliament, or MEPs, equal roughly on their organization's vote share.)
For the most part, the parties who run in these elections are the same that run in the national elections, so there aren't any multi-national political parties. (There's one big exception in the UK, but I'll get to that later.) Once elected, the nationally-based parties and their 736 MEPs tend to coalesce into one of several organized voting blocs, or "groups," which act rather loosely as multi-national parties. These groups are pretty fluid: the British Conservative party, who was the big winner in the UK tonight, is considering splitting away from the larger centre-right group along with their ideological counterparts from Poland and the Czech Republic.
This is all mildly interesting stuff, if you're a political math nerd like myself, except for the catch that the balance of power in the European Union rests predominantly with the national governments of the member states. European federalism is alive and well; various attempts by the apparatus of the EU to subsume power away from the individual member states have met with popular blowback. If you want an American parallel, think the Articles of Confederation. Which means that, because they don't do much, there's substantial criticism of the EU parliament as being not much more than a "talking shop," and an expensive one at that - they maintain full-time seats in both Strasbourg, France and Brussels, Belgium. Anyway...
The coming fall of British Labour
Voters in Europe tend to know/care roughly about as much as you do does when it comes to European Union issues, and so therefore tend to treat the elections as a midterm referendum on their own country's government. If you've been reading said favorite blogs or internationally-focused news sites over the past few weeks, you probably have heard that Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, and his Labour party are in a bit of trouble, owing to the overall global economic situation as well as the expenses scandal that's currently rocking Britain.
(Primer within a primer: A bunch of members of the British parliament - not the EU version - billed taxpayers for frivolous personal stuff, and some good old-fashioned investigative journalism came up with the worst offenders.)
Combine this with a long-rumored but rarely-publicized revolt against the leadership of Gordon Brown by some British Labour party MPs, and you have all the makings of a midterm shellacking by the voting public. Owing to the fact that the British had regularly scheduled local elections on Thursday, they contested the European parliamentary election at the same time, but embargoed the European results until Sunday when the rest of the member states had finished. This meant that Labour had the unfortunate circumstance of losing a week's worth of news cycles just from a single election; they received negative press coverage having been wiped out in local elections on Thursday (which were able to publish its results), had to deal with "will they/won't they" rumors of a leadership coup on Friday and Saturday because of the local election results, then get more bad midterm news Sunday night from an election held three days ago and will face another two days of pundits questioning Labour's fate because of "yet another" bad showing. Uhm...
Now, as Democrats we should tend to like the Labour party (at least more than the Conservative party that would be its successor). They'll be in power for up to May 2010 if they wish; the UK Parliament is elected for five year terms but the government can call a new general election whenever they wish. Given the landslide success shown by the Conservatives in the local and European elections, there's three ways that this may turn out.
1. Gordon Brown digs in and figures that there's nowhere for him to go but up. He spends the next eleven months promoting his pretty laudable work combating the economic slowdown, and publicly excising the Labour party of any MPs who get caught up in the expenses scandal. The general election comes around in May; the Conservative party wins but not at a soul-crushing landslide level, and Gordon Brown doesn't go down in a history as an abject failure
2. Gordon Brown resigns (or is forced out... it's about 50-50 which one is more likely). A new Prime Minister is selected from Labour MPs in a slapdash way that deepens the growing divide in the Labour party. Either due to overwhelming public pressure or perhaps even a vote of no confidence, an early general election is called in late summer of this year. The Conservatives absolutely liquidate the Labour party, perhaps knocking them into third place behind the Liberal Democrats (though Kossacks would probably like them more than Labour). From that embarrassment and position of irrelevance, the Labour party self-destructs.
3. Gordon Brown leaves, but does so with a level of wit and self-effacing charm that transforms him into the British version of Gerald Ford. A new, young leader rises up from the Labour backbenches to act as a counter to David Cameron, the Conservative leader. Somehow, someway, he resets the policy agenda and has enough radical street cred to win a general election in mid-winter. Also, I wake up Christmas morning and find a pony under the tree. Yay!
The rise of the British National Party
The other disconcerting element to arise is that, of the 72 MEPs elected by Britain, two belong to the British National Party. The BNP is a bunch of vile racist, Islamophobic, homophobic bigoted thugs. Their leader, Nick Griffin (one of the MEPs) is on record as a Holocaust denier; they distributed pamphlets supporting their group with a picture of a bombed-out bus after the 7/7 terror attacks in London.
The "how could this happen" question has an easy set of answers, and yet a difficult one as well. First off, the proportional representation system employed by Britain broke the country up into twelve "regions," which each elected its own set of MEPs. Primarily this allows mainstream regional parties such as Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party to be competitive, since they won't run candidates outside their main constituencies and could find their vote share diminished on a national level beyond the standard necessary to obtain MEPs. However several regions had to retrogress from an all-postal ballot system to a traditional polling place system. As you might expect, turnout went way down in those areas from five years ago. As all veteran campaigners know, low turnout = wacky results, and both BNP representatives were elected in these regions.
Second, the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party, which garnered 2.2% of the national vote in the 2005 British general election, came in second place nationally with 13 MEPs and 17.5% of the popular vote. (As of this writing, the Scotland and Northern Ireland regions are yet to return their numbers, so the popular vote number is provisional.) They had twelve MEPs in the last European Parliament election in 2004. The party obviously overperforms its national standard in European elections, primarily because their focal reason for existence is dissolution of British ties with the EU. Combining with Labour's performance falling through the floor (for comparison, they won 11 MEPs with 15.4% of the popular vote so far) and there is obviously a unique set of circumstances by which voter protest and discouragement would be channeled.
But - why would it go to the British National Party?
That's the disconcerting question. They won 6.6% of the national popular vote. That means that 13 out of every 200 voting Britons voted for a party that supports repatriating immigrants and denying the Holocaust and suppressing the franchise from minorities, as well as all manner of horrifying social policies. And that means that two members of a party whose founder declared "Mein Kampf is my bible" will be joining an organized group of far-right kooks from the rest of Europe. They'll get European taxpayer dollars to do "research" on policies and to support their campaigns. They'll gain an aura of legitimacy as they walk around styled as MEPs for the next five years. At best, they'll be a running embarassment. At worst, a foreshadowing of the neo-fascism that's become prevalent in so many other European countries.
So now, America. We've just experienced one of the strongest, proudest cultural moments in our nation's history five months ago. We look at opinion polls with confidence and the Republican death spiral with benign amusement. But the pendulum, it swings--