Owing to its strong performance in London (where the result was interminably delayed due to Tower Hamlets), Labour has narrowly beaten the Tories into second place in the European elections – polling 25 per cent to the Conservatives’ 24 per cent – a dismal result. It was bad enough to become the first main opposition party not to win the contest since 1984, but it’s even worse for it to barely avoid third (although I warned of the danger two weeks ago). The Tories may have finished third in a national election for the first time in their history but they will be delighted to have run the opposition so close.
Here’s the final result:
Ukip 27.5 per cent – 24 seats (up 11)
Labour 25.4 per cent – 20 seats (up 7)
Conservative 24.0 per cent – 19 seats (down 7)
Green Party 7.9 per cent – 3 seats (up 1)
Lib Dems 6.9 per cent – 1 seat (down 10)
SNP 2 seats (N/C)
Plaid Cymru 1 seat (N/C)
Labour sources are emphasising that the election tends to favour eurosceptic parties but expect plenty in the shadow cabinet to reply that it should have expressed more scepticism. As I’ve previously reported, senior figures, most notably Ed Balls, were angered by Ed Miliband’s failure to put the need for EU reform at the centre of the campaign. Having accepted the promise of a more sceptical stance on Europe as a quid pro quo for Miliband’s refusal to guarantee an EU referendum (which a majority of shadow cabinet ministers were in favour of), they felt the Labour leader failed to follow through on his commitment by barely mentioning the issue.
The argument from the Miliband camp is that it made sense for the party to focus on the “cost-of-living” issues – housing, prices and wages – on which it polls best. But that judgement will be questioned today. The result will also bolster those, such as Balls, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, who argue that the party needs to be far more vocal on immigration.
The European elections are a historically poor indicator of the general election result. In 1989, the Greens finished third with 15 per cent of the vote but won just 0.5 per cent at the national contest three years later. In 1999, William Hague’s Tories triumphed but went down to a landslide defeat against Labour two years later. Ukip polled 16 per cent in 2004 and 17 per cent in 2009 yet failed to exceed three per cent in the subsequent general elections.
But Labour’s defeat has deprived it of what would have been an opportunity to project Miliband as the next prime minister. With just under a year to go until the general election, the party is desperately short of the momentum it needs to be confident of victory next May.