Nigel Farage has been predicting for months that UKIP will win this May’s European elections but the latest poll, in common with all other recent surveys, shows Labour remain ahead. YouGov’s poll for the Sun puts Miliband’s party on 32%, UKIP on 26%, the Tories on 23% and the Lib Dems on 9% (which would leave them with no MEPs on a uniform swing).
Given this, you might expect Farage to be lowering expectations, but he remains confident that his party will triumph on 22 May. UKIP figures point out that they only moved into second place in the final weeks of the 2009 campaign after a late surge (aided in part by the expenses scandal). On 8 May 2009, a YouGov poll put them on just 7%, 15 points behind Labour and 12 points behind the Lib Dems. But by 3 June 2009, the day before the election, they were on 18%, two points ahead of Labour and three points ahead of the Lib Dems. They eventually polled 16.5%, finishing in second place, 0.8% ahead of Labour. While recognising that the race will be tight, UKIP strategists are hoping to pull off a narrow victory this time round.
But the year has not started as they would have wanted. Farage has long vowed to turn the European elections into a referendum on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration but the dearth of migrants since the transitional controls were rlifted on 1 January (just 24 Romanians have entered the UK, according to the country’s ambassador) means he may now struggle to do so. Labour enjoys the advantage of simultaneous elections in all 32 London boroughs and all 36 metropolitan boroughs, areas where its core vote is strongest. Party strategists hope that enough voters whose default setting is to put a cross in the Labour box will turn out for the party to see off the Farageist threat (my own prediction is that it will).
If Labour do finish second, the consoling factor will be that the Tories, for the first time in a national election, will have finished third. While Conservatives hope that such a result is already “priced in”, the danger remains that it will prompt another insurrection from Tory backbenchers determined for their party to adopt an even tougher line on Europe. This would detract from the party’s central message that Labour can’t be trusted to manage the economy and ensure that it continues to obsess over an issue of little or no interest to most voters.
As polling by Ipsos MORI has long shown, the EU does not even make it into the top ten of the public’s concerns. Lord Ashcroft’s recent study of Tory-leaning voters found that an EU referendum is “a sideshow” for most of them. He wrote: “A surprising number of those we spoke to did not realise it was even on the agenda, and were nonplussed when they found out it was. Those for whom it is important know all about it (though they sometimes doubt it will come to pass even if the Tories win). But to make it a major theme of the campaign would be to miss the chance to talk about things that matter more to more people.”
For the Lib Dems, the worst case scenario is that they finish fifth, behind the Greens (who won 8% of the vote last time round). At the Lib Dem conference last year, one senior party activist suggested to me that this prompt a leadership challenge against Clegg. With a year to go until the general election, there would be still be just enough time to send for Cable or Farron.
More than on any previous occasion, all three of the main party leaders have good reason to dread the count on 22 May.