The government of the UK has been forced into a corner, again, yet again and with clearly more corners to come. This time it is the 2019 European Parliament election that will be held on Thursday 23 May 2019. Originally, the elections were not planned (or wanted) because the UK’s withdrawal from the EU was set for 29 March 2019, promised even, to the present government’s discredit.
At present the UK has 73 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) over the 12 electoral regions of the UK. By parties in order of number of MEPs they are Labour 18; Conservatives 18; Brexit Party¹ 14; Independent 7²; Greens 3; UKIP³; SNP 2; DUP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Féin, Social Democratic Party⁴ and UUP each have 1 and 1 seat is vacant⁵.
After the forthcoming election the UK will have 73 seats again, but those are likely to be spread across a larger number of parties. All of the parties listed above except SDP are standing again with Change UK, English Democrats, Animal Welfare Party, UK EU Party, Women’s Equality Party, Socialist Party of Great Britain, Yorkshire Party, Alliance, Social Democratic and Labour Party and Traditional Unionist Voice throwing in their hats across the UK. Some are local or regional, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have ‘national’ parties. There are also numerous independent candidates whose manifestos and alliances appear to cross a wide range from sensible to irrational and clear sighted sanity to gibbering madness. No doubt all 28 countries participating in the elections have their oddball parties and candidates, but the UK could almost be accused of attempting to monopolise them.
The face of Brexit?
One name repeatedly stands out, Nigel Farage, before all others. He is making news at present, not just for the new Brexit Party, but that is interesting in itself. Its founding was announced on 20 January 2019 by former UKIP economics spokesperson Catherine Blaiklock, who then became the party’s leader. Farage, who was an independent MEP since his departure from UKIP in December 2018, originally said that the party was Blaiklock’s idea. However, he added that she had set it up with his full support. After announcing the party’s formation, she was censured for past comments described as Islamophobic. She resigned as leader over since-deleted anti-Islam tweets, including re-tweeting messages by far right figures including Mark Collett, neo Nazi and alt-right political activist, Tommy Robinson, who is actually Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, a far-right activist who has served as a political adviser to the leader of UKIP, Gerard Batten, and Joe Walsh, the American extreme right wing conservative talk radio host and former congressman. When the party was officially launched on 12 April, asked about Blaiklock, Farage said that he set the party up although she was the administrator that got it set up, thus contradicting what he had originally said. Then in April, the party’s treasurer, Michael McGough, was dismissed from that position after he was found to have made anti-Semitic and homophobic social media posts. Both Blaiklock and McGough remain directors alongside Farage and party treasurer Phillip Basey, although it was originally announced both had resigned both as directors and had supposedly cut all ties with the new party.
Farage is now facing strong criticism from Jewish organisations and other groups after the revelation that he took part in interviews with a far right US talk show host, Alex Jones, at least six times during which he openly discussed conspiracy theories, including some which have been linked to anti-Semitism. He left UKIP last year because he said he disagreed with its hard right, anti-Islam position under Gerard Batten. In appearances on Jones’s show between 2009 and 18, he discussed themes commonly associated with an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that claim that Jewish bankers are behind a massive conspiracy to replace nation states with a global government. He repeatedly used words and phrases such as ‘globalists’ and ‘new world order’ which are common anti-Semitic conspiracy terminology.
It would take a very skilled writer of political fiction to create Farage, so extreme are his words and some of his actions, yet he is tolerated although he has no significant political role inside the UK. He has stood for election to the House of Commons seven times, in five general elections and two by-elections, but has never won or even come close to winning any of those elections. His self-made persona is the ordinary bloke who goes out to the pub for a pint and a fag, indeed is for lifting the smoking ban in pubs and restaurants, yet the real man is a former commodities trader with a private education behind him, who lives in a £4 million house in London with his French girlfriend, his German wife having left him, who can feel at home being hosted by Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump. That is ordinary? Well, if it is, then most of us are fools for not being ordinary enough. He is a caricature of a politician, which his appearance also tends to confirm. He grimaces, he gurns, he has a particular kind of laugh that emphasises his mouth, teeth in particular and has at times been referred to as a ‘horse face’ and not infrequently compared to Kermit the Frog. It would truly take a great deal of imagination to write this character.
His party, emphatically his, are in a state of virtual war with UKIP whose leader Batten has used his party’s European election campaign launch to hit out at their former leader by calling his Brexit Party a “safety valve for disaffected Tories.” He furthermore claimed that UKIP is ‘a real political party’ unlike the Brexit Party, which he said was a “wholly owned subsidiary of one man’s ego” and an ‘autocracy’ with neither members nor structure. For all of the leader’s claims, all is not well in UKIP. One candidate, Robert McNeil-Wilson who was on their Welsh list has quit the party in protest at the rape ‘joke’ uproar caused by candidate Carl Benjamin that has attracted a considerable amount of media attention. Thus UKIP, a party that has always attracted controversy is now attracting ridicule to its image that was already jaded the day it was set up. As if to rub salt into the wound, UKIP members are commonly known as ‘kippers’ and have somehow or other made the cured herring into an object of humour. The phrase ‘better than a slap in the face with a wet kipper’ that means that ‘when some minor bad luck or accident happens to somebody, there are worse things that could happen’ has undergone something of a revival, but the serious ‘better than a kick in the teeth’ connotation has been replaced by something far more abstract and moreover as a joke.
So let us turn to the machinery of politics, the parties, to have a little more insight into where we might begin to take them seriously. After all, this is an election that should never have happened, theoretically those voted into office may never take their seats, but they probably will, then for how long and doing what. Certainly UKIP and Brexit Party are proposing to simply disturb. They already do, so what is new? Some Tories are suggesting similar, however what and how anything can be achieved by people who may not be there very long evades me.
Now, as part of their electoral campaign, the Brexit Party has said it will not publish a manifesto until after the EU elections since they are fighting the elections on the basis of democracy! So no policies other than Brexit, certainly no transparency, yet are claiming democracy as their message, which is actually undemocratic. Polls nonetheless show them leading the race for seats. The pro-Brexit right wing appears to be competing for attention for which of them is the more off the wall.
The other newcomers in the game
The other significant newcomers are Change UK. They began known as The Independent Group (TIG) of political refugees from the established main parties that was formally founded in February and registered in April. I suggested to somebody that they would be known as Tiggers, unaware of the fact that hundreds of Winnie the Pooh fans had obviously thought the same, so that the Twittersphere was full of Tigger jokes. It didn’t last long though because people actually wanted to know what was going on. Seven founding members were MPs who quit Labour, Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith and Chuka Umunna, simultaneously announcing their resignations on 18 February 2019, citing their dissatisfaction with the leadership’s approach to Brexit and its handling of anti-Semitism within the party, to sit as a group of independent MPs. Comparisons were quickly made to the ‘Gang of Four’ who split from Labour to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981 that failed then merged with the almost defunct Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats in 1988. They have had a chequered history, mostly as a minor political force whose greatest claim to fame is five years of coalition with the Tories from 2010 to 15 that was so disastrous it cost them a large proportion of their already not huge support, a large number of MPs in their terms and the painful outcome of their hubris. Change-UK neither wants to follow suit nor be modelled on them in people’s minds. There again, they have no way of controlling minds that also know where this party has sprung up from. As yet they have done nothing to prove their potential, if there is one, thus this election should be their first opportunity to do so.
Change UK hit a minor hitch when its logo was rejected by the electoral authorities because it contained a hashtag and acronym TIG, which was considered not recognisable to voters. Their choice of name from TIG was also not welcomed by the change.org petition website organisers or with those who believe it is not sufficiently clear what it stands for. Meanwhile, they insist they are a member of the ‘Remain Alliance’, but have reportedly spurned offers to cooperate with other pro-EU parties. In other words, they appear to be in it for themselves rather than standing aside to give other parties more likely to win seats a clear run and similarly appear to reject tactical voting. They seem to be missing the point that the best means of opposing Brexit is by supporting a Remain party that stands the best chance of getting an MEP elected therefore, for example, supporting Change UK in Scotland is a wasted vote. However, the way they very publicly divorced their parties then went on to be high profile, again redolent of the Gang of Four resignations then very showy launch of the SDP in 1981, bearing in mind that seven years later their failure led them into a merger that has still not put them on top where they originally imagined they would be. Thus, 23 May will be an interesting litmus test for Tiggers.
Nonetheless, they are not without other problems. Initially it was anticipated there would be a political stampede of defectors, at first and perhaps mainly from Labour but with some Tories and even one or two unsatisfied LibDems. That has, thus far and becoming too late, not happened. They have raised a large number of candidates for the elections but are now facing a dilemma with the pro-EU voters they depend on. Although negotiations have taken place, they appear to be entirely resistant to the notion of forming any kind of pro-EU alliance so that preferred candidates from particular parties, such as the Greens or LibDems, could be given a free run against other parties. What they are now doing is probably sufficient to remind the media of their initial comparison with SDP. That party had reformed and had a UKIP defector in the European Parliament, but they will not be standing this time round, so that ‘natural’ space is there to be filled. It remains to be seen how much success they will enjoy and where they may get a taste of history repeated.
In one of our recent podcasts, Europa United editor, Ken Sweeney spoke with Roger Casale who is running as a candidate for Change UK. Casale is a former Labour MP and MEP. You can listen to the podcast at the link here.
The established parties
The two ‘main parties’ are floundering. Both are very divided to the point that media refers to civil wars within them, whilst at the same time their leaders, Corbyn and May are locked in negotiations to try to reach an agreement of the deal, the Withdrawal Agreement, that has already failed to be passed by parliament three times and appears to be heading for the fourth occasion, if May decides to try again. She has done all she could to avoid holding the elections, at the last stages trying to get her deal agreed so that they did not need to go ahead. Now they are going ahead but she is claiming she wants to have the deal through before they would take up their seats on 2 July. The two parties are in disarray and dominated by opposing forces within that almost certainly ensures that a totally dissimilar combination of right and moderate left will prevent the Withdrawal Agreement being voted for. May is now only a ‘caretaker’ PM because she has lost the trust of a large part of her party but cannot be persuaded to go whereas Corbyn is pro-Brexit in defiance of a party majority and conference’s broadly speaking pro-EU stance. Neither party is doing well in polls. The recent local elections saw around 1300 councillors lost by the Tories, bad for them but they have suffered worse in the past yet remained in office. Labour lost a politically small number of seats but is not popular with traditional supporters. Neither party looks set to be successful in the elections.
The biggest gain in local elections was by the LibDems, however they are a strong local political party at a time when central government has spent more or less three years avoiding and neglecting issues that are local and, for many people, far more important than Brexit. However, as a parliamentary and European political force they are not strong, despite being Remainers more or less across the board. Their present leader, Vince Cable, has announced his retirement which will be after the elections, therefore not very helpful. Their support is inhibited by the memory of a sizeable number of voters who remember the role of the party and Cable particularly in the 2010 to 15 coalition with the Tories. Some memories are being stirred as to how the then leader, Nick Clegg, could have dissuaded David Cameron from making the referendum a manifesto commitment, thus averting the disastrous period the UK has entered into since 2016. Their pro-EU stance may not suffice for the degree of success they anticipate.
The other parties are by and large small or ‘localised’. Thus, whilst the SNP is at present the third party in parliament, the fact it is the national party of Scotland without a wider UK affiliation, and may gain EU seats this time round, overall they are not a major denominator. The Greens made proportionately the greatest progress in local elections but the question remains whether that can be assimilated in the impending elections? All other parties of whatever political standing are bit players, especially the few oddball new parties.
Of course it can be far more entertaining to go into some of the ‘personalities’ (sic) standing in the elections. Farage, who has among the worst attendance records of all MEPs and undoubtedly during his term on the Fisheries Commission managing only one session out of 43, also has a track record of misusing expenses, what one might call abuse of privilege and courting controversy, is standing again. So let’s take a look at Brexit Party ‘outstanding’ candidates. Farage has given prominent places to longstanding allies such as businessmen and Leave Means Leave co-chairs Richard Tice and John Longworth. They also list former Tory minister and pro-Brexit Anne Widdecombe (most recently unmemorable for her terrible performances on BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing) and Annunziata Rees-Mogg, sister of ERG chair Jacob who was several times turned down as a Tory parliamentary candidate by David Cameron because she is ‘too posh’. Less well known in his ranks is John Tennant, who, according to polls, is expected to win a seat as one of three candidates in the north-east. He once praised a colleague for using a Nazi slogan in the European parliament, has a history of using vulgar and obscene language about women in social media posts, has made light of being intoxicated and suggested that Liverpool fans are criminals. They have several other notable, dubious characters standing, but none have quite the edge their immediate rivals have attracted.
UKIP ‘personality’ candidates include far-right YouTuber Carl Benjamin who is known as ‘Sargon of Akkad’ online, whose greatest claim to fame is perhaps that he tweeted “I wouldn’t even rape you” to Labour MP Jess Philips which leader Batten defended as ‘satire’. The rightwing social media activist has been the source of a series of controversies, including recently when we were reminded about comments he made in 2014 arguing that feminism was responsible for a rise in the number of men carrying out mass murders. He is second on UKIP’s South West list, thus likely to be elected. A few reports have appeared about candidates, or at least people who have applied to be listed, who may be better placed in secure accommodation than in a parliamentary setting in Brussels. Such is the nature of the party, has been all of its jaded life and will be until its demise.
Batten’s ally and ‘adviser’ Tommy Robinson, who has also been known as Andrew McMaster, Paul Harris and Wayne King, who is actually Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, English Defence League (EDL) co-founder and former leader, former member of the British National Party (BNP) and once joint vice-chairman of the British Freedom Party (BFP), is standing as an independent in the North West, potentially splitting the pro-Brexit vote in the region. He pledged to represent ‘the working class of England’ if elected. More than 40 charities have rejected his other pledge which is to donate his hypothetical European parliament salary to child victims of sexual grooming. He often singles out Muslims as being behind grooming gangs and has also been accused of selectively publicising certain child sex abuse cases to promote a wider anti-Islam agenda. A coalition of women’s groups, that includes the End Violence Against Women and Girls Coalition, said that he exploits the pain suffered by victims in a self-serving attempt to fuel racial hatred. They have rejected his offer, which, after all, is unlikely to come to fruition. He is another ‘ordinary’ chap. His criminal record includes convictions for violence, financial and immigration frauds, drug possession, public order offences and contempt of court. He has served at least three separate custodial sentences for assault, using false travel documents and mortgage fraud. How ordinary does one have to be to stand for the European Parliament? For those who were given jobs during their time in prison, do those belong on CVs since the lists of skills in some people’s résumés are diverse to the point of impressive?
This man is attracting more attention than most other independent candidates. They usually arrange from single issue campaigners who stand for each and every election of any nature on principle. Their causes are many varied from the eccentric to outright weird, extreme to far too sensible to take seriously. Some are fanatics, others modest people who strongly believe in their causes, except that very few other people do. To examine their diversity would be a long and tedious, ultimately pointless undertaking when due consideration to the fact that very few of them will be elected anyway.
Change UK has Rachel Johnson, Gavin Esler, Stephen Dorrell and Crispin Hunt on its lists. Johnson is Change UK’s lead candidate in the South West region. She is a former editor of the posh women’s magazine The Lady. She has said she does not want to see Brexit “rubbing out my children’s prospects and chances of living and travelling and working in Europe”. She is also the sister of former foreign secretary Boris Johnson. Their father, Stanley, was a Conservative MEP between 1979 and 1984, but was rejected as a candidate when he proposed to stand again this year. Esler is a Scots journalist, television presenter and author. He was previously a main presenter on BBC2’s flagship political analysis programme, Newsnight, from 2002 until 2014. He was also presenter of News at Five on the BBC News Channel. Dorrell is the former Tory MP for Loughborough between 1979 and 97, then Charnwood from 1997 to 2015. Most recently he served four years as chairman of the House of Commons Health Select Committee from 2010 to 14. In the 1990s he was a full member of John Major’s Cabinet for almost three years, serving as Secretary of State for National Heritage, then Secretary of State for Health until the 1997 general election. He was also a Patron of the Tory Reform Group but would clearly appear to have given up on those reforms. He left the Tories to join Change UK this year. Hunt was the front man of 1990s band the Longpigs, has also written songs for artists including Florence and the Machine and Ellie Goulding. But given he is sixth on their list for the election, he is unlikely to go to Brussels. Two other candidates, Ali Sadjady and Joseph Russo, have already been forced to step aside after offensive tweets were exposed.
They have just received a small boost to their chances through a grave tactical error the BBC has just made. Heidi Allen, leader of Change UK was on BBC1’s Have I Got News For You as a panellist. The programme was pulled about 20 minutes before transmission was due on 10 May. Their reason was that they feared her appearance would breach election impartiality rules. Her response, and it would appear that of many people are at present complaining similarly, was that the night before Farage had appeared on Question Time and had an interview with Andrew Marr due at the weekend. From being an almost unknown Tory MP to being one who quit in order to join the new party, she has now come into the limelight. Although she is not a candidate for the EU elections, as leader of a party contesting Brexit, she may have attracted a few sympathy votes with this BBC faux pas.
The Greens have a far more interesting candidate in Magid Magid, one of their councillors and former Somali refugee who became Sheffield’s youngest lord mayor at the age of 28. He is perhaps best known for ‘banning’ Donald Trump from Sheffield when he visited the UK, celebrating Mexico Solidarity Day instead, whilst wearing a ‘Trump is a Wasteman’ t-shirt. He is the Greens’ top candidate in Yorkshire and the Humber. The party has three sitting MEPs and may have more after this election.
Labour is fielding Andrew Adonis as their ‘star’ candidate. The Labour peer has until very recently been a vociferous anti-Brexit voice, particularly online with some extremely blunt and to the point tweets calling Jeremy Corbyn out and from the backbenches of the House of Lords, picking a string of arguments, including with the BBC over its EU coverage and with Labour’s leadership generally. However, he surprised his admirers recently by making a statement in which he said he is backing Labour’s ‘sensible alternative plan’ for a Brexit deal. One wonders what he has been offered or has he really undergone a damascene conversion recently? Labour have a history of using well known members for campaigns but where are they this time? This appears to be a rather unfortunate accident at a time when ‘famous’ supporters of Labour are quitting, most recently Tony Robinson, once Blackadder’s servant Baldrick who always had a ‘cunning plan’, who this times is without the plan in despair of Corbyn’s position on a new referendum. As one might say: should do better!
Tory candidates, none of whom expect to do too well, include yet again arch-Brexiter Daniel Hannan who is about the closest they have on offer to a ‘personality’ candidate. They know they will not do well, so no energy is being wasted getting star names to stand for them. Putting up candidates to lose seats is part of the game, but to invest any amount of money to publicise high profiles is clearly not considered a good move this time.
The Scottish National Party is the third largest in Westminster although as a national party it has only a proportion of the 73 seats available for the UK measured in terms of populations, a single MEP for each of its six EU constituencies. SNP hold two of those seats at present, Labour once since one of its MEPs resigned to take up a new post and the Tories and UKIP have one each. Recent polls show that SNP are likely to take two of those seats, bringing them up to four. The recent Scottish Tory party conference in Aberdeen appears to have boosted support for SNP. Ruth Davidson, Tory leader had just returned from maternity leave and had even ‘discourage’ a number of potential UK leadership candidates from attending. Among them was Boris Johnson, who true to form turned up. He accused supporters of a new referendum of ‘doing the work of the Scottish National Party’ by making a second Scottish independence vote more likely and threatening the union. This comes at a time when the First Minister has set a deadline for a new independence referendum by May 2021 in the event of a no deal Brexit. As it is, the most recent polls are showing growing support for independence that had evaporated in 2014 when a majority voted to remain in the UK. However, with Scotland voting overwhelmingly to remain in the EU in 2016 but May’s refusal to negotiate or even properly listen to attempts to find a compromise, the appetite for the UK is obviously in decline. Johnson boosted support for independence by insulting the Scots with his utterances.
They are fielding a number of candidates in each of the six electoral regions; an increased number of MEPs would serve to reinforce their case for EU membership after independence. What they are not doing, is attempting to sway voters opinions by using ‘stars’ to boost their chances. In fact, thus far they have allowed external forces including May and Johnson to do that for them.
Problems to be resolved
Whatever the approach campaigners for the elections adopt, they must always also be aware that the UK has always had a worse than average turnout in EU elections, indeed often the worst. From most recent backwards, in 2014 it was 36%, 2009 35%, 2004 39%, 1999 24% (worst in the EU) (This was the first time the D’Hondt (or Jefferson) method was applied in Great Britain, in Northern Ireland the STV method continued to be used), 1994 36%. (The electoral system used was FPTP in England, Scotland and Wales and STV in Northern Ireland as before), 1989 36% (worst in the EU), 1984 33% (worst in the EU) and 1979 33% (worst in the EU).
So it is a matter of getting people up off their soft sofas. Therefore, for the outcome of the elections to reflect recent polls on EU membership, Brexiters like Nigel Farage should not be allowed to dictate the narrative that their party is uniquely the people’s movement thus attract their followers out in disproportionate numbers to those of the opposing view. Polling and protests in recent months have shown the momentum is clearly against the absurd situation Brexit is causing, thus an election campaign needs be used to drive that truth home in order to attract a largely complacent electorate out of their cocoons to be exemplary butterflies with a positive message about EU membership. The parties appear to be stubbornly fixated on the Remain or Leave positions with the same never properly explained reasons for either, with nothing used to counter the myths about Brussels that should be easily quashed on offer. Inexplicably, there is far more fanfare than tune, as yet no words to the song to match the title. So far it appears to be mostly about people rather than policies, driven by often dubious personalities rather than actual policies or clear political positions. Indeed, some of the characters in the frame at this point in time are more like characters in the script of a comedy written by somebody like Ricky Gervais than actual political animals. Although populist parties in the UK may be compared to those in Italy or Hungary, Farage compared to Le Pen in France or Trump in the USA, in fact the reality is that it has become a theatre of the absurd. If Spitting Image was to be revived, this EU election in the UK would alone fill a series of shows. If taken even moderately seriously, nonetheless much of the audience would be rolling on their floors in fits of laughter. These elections are meant to be serious! Somebody should tell everybody that.
¹All 14 members were elected as UKIP but moved when the new party was formed. ²The independent MEPs are spread across a political spectrum, including one who claims to be entirely independent of parties or bloc. ³Now diminished by defection to the new party. ⁴Originally voted UKIP but defected. ⁵ One seat in Scotland has been vacant since Catherine Stihler, Labour, stood down on 31 January 2019 to take up a new job. Her seat was left vacant by the Scottish Labour Party on the assumption of the UK’s exit from the EU on 29 March.