Trying to divine the political future from the results of European Parliamentary elections always involves an element of entrail-gazing. Across the continent, people take the opportunity to register protest votes; this year, the turnout (43 percent) was at a historic low. But as the final results come in, two things are becoming clear: the center-right has gained at the expense of social democrats, even in France, Italy and Germany where voters might have been expected to give ruling conservatives a kicking; and the collapse of the left vote has let in an unprecedented number of far-right and neo-fascist candidates.
Far-right parties made gains in the Netherlands, where the anti-Islam campaigner Geert Wilders came second with 17 percent of the vote; in Hungary, where the anti-Roma party Jobbik took three out of 22 seats; in Austria, where the Freedom Party polled 18 percent; in Slovakia, where extreme nationalists won their first seats; and in Britain, which elected not one but two candidates from the British National Party--a racist, neo-Nazi group committed to white supremacy and to "reversing the tide of non-white immigration."
What explains this ugly result? Obviously, it's partly the economy: hungry creatures tend to turn against their neighbors. But it's also a loss of faith: in the idea of Europe; in mainstream politics (seen as disconnected and corrupt); and particularly in the center left's ability to come up with any alternatives. (A sliver of silver lining: in France, former sixty-eighter Daniel Cohn-Bendit's green coalition, Europe Ecologie, outpolled the Socialists in greater Paris and in the south-east.) In Britain, BNP leader Nick Griffin actually won fewer votes than he did five years ago; the reason he is now an MEP is that the Labour vote spectacularly collapsed. Because of the expenses scandal and Labour's recent implosion, Britain might be seen as something of a special case, but the pattern in Europe is similar. In Germany, France and Italy the center-left has been on the defensive, offering no alternative routes out of the recession.
For Britain's Labour Party, following on from last week's local elections, the European vote is one more nail in an already bristling coffin. Relegated to third place after the Tories and the UK Independence Party--a right-wing anti-EU group that used to be seen as marginal--Labour did worse than it has in any election since 1918. It lost Scotland to the Scottish Nationalists and Wales to the Tories; it lost acres of heartland which may never be recovered, leaving hard-working local activists and community politicians who've given their lives to the cause abandoned and betrayed. Whether or not Gordon Brown stays on as leader--and he is now being held in place by Scotch tape and Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair's old familiar--Labour is finished, possibly for decades.
While the media focus on Westminster plots and counter-plots, the real rot goes far deeper. Like an overdose of chemotherapy, the New Labour project appears to have killed the patient it was meant to cure. Back in the 1990s, faced with a political consensus moved to the right by Thatcherism and a decimated industrial base, New Labour had no choice but to go after middle class voters--so-called "Mondeo Man." The Spartan discipline imposed by Blair and his minions to keep MPs "on message" and silence the Labour left went hand in hand with a pernicious centralization that starved the party's roots--and allowed Blair to take the country into a hated war.
The dysfunctional marriage of Blair and Brown that festered for years at the administration's heart paradoxically may have contributed to its longevity. For those of us who couldn't bear to turn our backs on Labour altogether, Brown's brooding silence made it possible to project all sorts of hopes: perhaps he wasn't in favour of the Iraq war, perhaps he really was to the left of Tony Blair, perhaps his community roots would reassert themselves and put an end to the glibness and the glitz in favor of old Labour values.
Well, we were wrong, on all those counts. As prime minister, Brown has been a disaster; he has also turned out to be a brutal political operator, issuing threats by proxy and leaking negative stories about his own ministers to the press. Some of those ministers have behaved even worse, notably former Communities Secretary Hazel Blears who quit the cabinet on the eve of the local elections wearing a Cheshire cat grin and a badge that read "Rocking the Boat," so pulling the rug from under scores of local councilors standing for re-election. The party is at its own throat as it has never been before, even in the wilderness years of the Thatcherite 1980s.
Barring some unprecedented event, a year from now we will have a Conservative government. Which brings us back to the European elections. To please his own Eurosceptic wing, David Cameron has pledged to take the Conservatives out of the center-right EPP-ED alliance in the European parliament, which includes the parties led by Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Nicolas Sarkozy. Instead, he plans to form a new Eurosceptic caucus. To that end, he has been making common cause with far-right parties from the former Eastern Europe, such as Poland's fundamentalist Catholic Law and Justice Party, which considers homosexuality a "pathology" and climate change a hoax, and the Czech Republic's Civic Democratic Party, whose founder, Vaclav Klaus, sees Brussels as the new Moscow.
UKIP's success in Britain will put wind in Cameron's sails; Europe's new far-right MEPs will no doubt support his project. And even if their election has no direct effect on European policy, it will be that much more acceptable for mainstream politicians to blame their countries' ills on immigrants and minorities. On June 6th, D-Day's 65th anniversary, Brown and Obama met on the beaches of Normandy with some of the last veterans of Europe's fight against fascism. As the last memories of that struggle fade, the racism skulking in corners of this crowded continent is finding a space in which to assert itself once more.