Where will the protest vote go, and what will it achieve when it gets there?

29 May 2009

It’s not just just about who will get the protest vote. It’s about which of the minor parties will serve Britain best in the European Parliament, says Rupert Read, Green Party MEP candidate for the Eastern region.

As we move towards the end of the European election campaign, there's one emerging story that the media is only now becoming aware of. Whilst political corruption, voter disillusionment and the threat of the BNP have been the main stories up to this point, quietly under the surface the Green Party has been steadily gaining support.

Nothing is certain until the votes are cast, but the polls over the last fortnight have been very encouraging to the Greens. UKIP commissioned a ComRes poll that put the Greens across the South East in third position on 16%, and on 11% nationwide. Of course polls vary, and a few days later a Guardian/ICM poll showed the Greens on 9%. But that’s still a very large increase on the actual 6% Green vote in 2004, and it puts the Green Party in a strong position to win far more seats in 2009.

In fact polls ahead of European elections usually underestimate the actual Green performance. It’s worth remembering that before their historic 2.2 million-strong vote in 1989 the Greens were polling at about 7-8%, but the actual vote turned out to be 15%. Then, under first-past-the-post, the Greens returned no MEPs. Now, under a proportional system, a much smaller vote than this would give the Greens MEP seats in several more regions beyond their existing foothold in London and the South East.

The polls do, however, seem to be showing UKIP to be a beneficiary of the current disenchantment with the three Westminster parties. UKIP is still ahead of the Greens in most polls. But of course there is a powerful irony in the notion that UKIP might benefit from an anti-sleaze vote. UKIP, the party that five years ago set out to clean up Europe, and since then has lost a quarter of its MEPs in unhappy circumstances, including one who was jailed for fraud. UKIP, whose leader had to tell Radio 4 listeners the day he launched his campaign, that it’s “better to have a smaller, cleaner party.” So UKIP is clean now. And it still sends nine MEPs to a parliament it considers pointless. I wonder what do they do there, besides collect their expenses?

When that particular penny drops, who will people too angry to vote for the big three or UKIP see fit to trust? A new YouGov poll commissioned by the Green Party gives some indication. The poll asked which party’s politicians would be most likely to put their own financial interests before their country’s. They could choose up to three. A staggering 45% said Labour and 40% said the Conservatives. Next there were the BNP, The LibDems and UKIP, on 20%, 16% and 15% respectively.

Only 5% thought Green politicians would put their own interests before Britain’s.

Of course Greens will be encouraged by this. We have also been encouraged that newspapers as far apart as The Guardian and the Sun have been publishing articles calling for fundamental constitutional reform to make British democracy more accountable, more responsive, more representative. The Green Party has had such reform on its agenda for a generation.

Of course there are other big issues facing us at the moment – issues like the recession and climate change. And the Green Party can honestly be said to be approaching both in a systematic, businesslike, joined-up way, demanding massive investment in emerging technologies, stimulated by the government (yes, even if it means large-scale borrowing). The Green New Deal offered in the party’s Euro-election manifesto would create a million jobs within three years by putting the economy on something like a war footing. The bigger parties have sought to emulate the Greens progressively over the years, but have always lagged behind the climate science and the policy package necessary to meet the science-driven targets.

As for UKIP, it still doesn’t accept that man-made climate change is real.

There has, of course, been intense speculation in the media that the protest vote would go to the BNP. Even the BBC has repeatedly, nay doggedly, mentioned the BNP as the possible beneficiary of the anti-sleaze protest, despite the contrary evidence of the opinion polls. Perhaps the latest YouGov poll, suggesting that the public feels BNP politicians are even more likely than UKIP to put their own financial interests before their country’s, might help pop the bubble of hysteria.

I’m proud to say the Green Party went into this campaign with a strong, positive vision, spelling out what its MEPs will do for Britain when they arrive in (or return to) Brussels. Given the increasing role the EU has in our lives, this shows the Greens being practical. Contrast Labour and the Conservatives, who are treating the Euro-election as a very expensive opinion poll on who’s going to win the next general election. Contrast the BNP, who are using the election to blame all of Britain’s woes on everyone who isn’t white, and whose leader pledges to “destroy the European Parliament” in his “epic battle between Good and Evil.” Contrast UKIP, who expect to win votes in an election they consider pointless, to a parliament that’s the one place where they can’t pursue their only policy.

The big three parties will, in all probability, still win most of the seats in this election, despite everything. But the smaller parties are looking set to win more seats than ever before. Which of these parties would serve Britain best? A racist national socialist party that considers anyone who disagrees with it a “traitor”? A party that wants to spend £30 billion on “voluntary repatriation” of people many of whom were born here?

Or UKIP, whose MEPs by its own reasoning have no purpose?

I think it will be far better for Britain if the majority of those minor party seats are taken up by Greens, committed to working hard for that million-jobs Green New Deal, with a positive vision for reform of both European and British democracy.

Dr Rupert Read is the Green Party’s leading MEP-candidate for Eastern England.

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