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.