by Robert Griffiths
The extensive media coverage of last week’s EU and local elections contrasts starkly with the lack of popular interest. While press and broadcasting pundits worked themselves into a lather of proclamation and speculation, only one in three electors bothered to vote.
So why such extraordinary media coverage?
Obviously, the implications of these elections for next year’s general election could be significant and thus worthy of attention. But three other factors also account for the frenzy.
First, pro-EU sections of the media are ever keen to seize every opportunity to trumpet the pseudo-democratic charade that is the European Parliament. This time around, we were told that the election was more worthy than ever of our respect and participation because the parliament possesses new powers.
The 2009 Lisbon Treaty granted the EU Parliament ‘co-decision making’ powers with the EU Council of Ministers.
It can bat legislative proposals from the unelected EU Commission back and forth between the commission and the council of ministers from member states. But still the parliament cannot initiate new laws or amend them unilaterally.
Similarly, it now jointly agrees the ‘compulsory’ section of the EU budget (mostly agriculture and about 45 per cent of expenditure) with the council, as well as the rest. But it has no powers to alter the tax system or raise its own revenues.
The Lisbon Treaty, which was imposed on the peoples of Europe without a referendum on the grounds that it was not a constitution, introduced other constitutional changes.
For instance, the EU Parliament now elects the EU Commission president – but from a short-list drawn up by member state heads of government. It also has to ratify their choice for the new post of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (who automatically becomes commission vice-president).
This new and exciting approach to democracy has delivered us Baroness Catherine Ashton as EU High Representative, who has never been elected by the people to anything in her illustrious political career.
In reality, the European Parliament remains among the most powerless directly-elected ‘legislatures’ on the planet.
Second, the Eurosceptic and anti-EU sections of the media sensed an opportunity to strengthen public sentiment in their favour, particularly through the projection of UKIP. They want to protect the largely unregulated City of London from any EU proposals to create a ‘level playing field’ to the advantage of finance capital in Frankfurt and Paris.
This stance is one close to UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s own heart and wallet, as the son of a City stockbroker and himself a former commodities trader.
Third, whatever their position on Britain’s EU membership, all sections of the bourgeois and state mass media prefer to report anti-EU sentiment from the pro-austerity, pro-privatisation UKIP and Tory right than from the anti-big business, anti-austerity left.
Of course, the predominant circles of monopoly capital in Britain, including US financial and industrial concerns, are resolutely opposed to withdrawal from the EU. Some see UKIP as useful and, at a later date, expendable.
But most if not all back the Tory strategy of renegotiating membership terms to protect City privileges and, as a bonus, exempt Britain from EU social legislation however mild. Throw in some restrictions on immigration and welfare entitlements and the whole package would be marketed to the public for a ‘Yes’ vote for continued EU membership in any future referendum.
Big business would prefer to see a majority Tory government elected next May because, among other reasons, neither the Labour nor LibDem leaderships favour renegotiation to protect the City.
This is the only political context in which to fully understand the main features of the media’s election reporting.
The near doubling of support for UKIP to almost 28 per cent of the poll and 23 MEPs deserved massive coverage rather than wall-to-wall saturation. The left and all who value a tolerant, multiracial, multicultural society are right to be alarmed. However, UKIP’s appeal will not be undermined by shrill accusations that the party and its leadership are racists and fascists who can and must be stamped out by a ‘no platform’ policy.
UKIP is riven with contradictions. It opposes the monopoly capitalist EU, while some of its candidates and activists are anti-big business whether British, American or European. It champions privatisation, while many members agree that the railways and energy should be in public ownership. The party upholds Britain’s subservient membership of NATO, yet rejects EU-NATO intervention in Syria and Ukraine.
Many UKIP members and most of its newly acquired supporters would not support privatisation of the NHS or a ‘flat tax’ that would raise taxes on low and middle incomes. Such policies featured in the party’s 2010 General Election manifesto, which has recently been given a private burial.
These are the issues on which UKIP can be stopped in its tracks, alongside the defence of a secular, multiracial society and full rights for migrant workers.
Moreover, it is a political struggle that can be won. Worrying though it is, UKIP’s advance should not be exaggerated.
Fewer than one in ten people on the electoral register voted for it in the local and EU elections on May 22. While the party came from nowhere to win 163 council seats on the day, none are in England’s big cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle and they represent less than 4 per cent of the total places up for grabs.
Most working class electors who might otherwise vote Labour appeared to have stayed at home last Thursday rather than protest by voting UKIP.
Labour’s performance has been damned by most of the media, ever eager to amplify the carping of ‘New Labour’ revivalists. Yet the party increased its share of the EU vote by two-thirds and its MEPs and local councillors by more than 50 per cent and almost 20 per cent, respectively.
Labour’s gains would have been all the greater had the party fought on even a moderately left and progressive platform.
Opposing wealth accumulation for the rich and austerity for the poor, arguing for council housebuilding and selective public ownership, exposing the anti-democratic and pro-big business character of the EU, would have drawn votes from almost all quarters, especially at the expense of UKIP and the pro-EU Greens.
Adopting a more Euro-critical stance and promising a referendum on EU membership would also significantly increase Labour’s chances of winning the 2015 General Election.
Certainly, it would be madness for Miliband or any other Shadow Cabinet member to hint at any kind of future coalition with the LibDems. Why throw them a lifeline and thereby tie Labour to a corpse?
Finally, there are two other lessons to be learnt from the EU election results, In Britain and across Europe.
First, the left must stop handing millions of votes to right-wing and fascist parties by allowing them to monopolise and pervert anti-EU sentiment.
Many people are hostile to the EU because they oppose the austerity and privatisation regime imposed on their country by the ‘troika’ (the EU Commission, European Central Bank and IMF); or they simply believe in national and democratic self-government rather than bureaucratic dictatorship; or they fear that the free movement of labour threatens their jobs or housing prospects.
The left should reflect these concerns by exposing and challenging the big business, anti-democratic and increasingly militaristic character of the EU.
Providing decent jobs, housing and public services for all requires the use of national state power against the ‘freedom’ of monopoly capital, with democratically self-governing countries cooperating to safeguard peace and environment as well as promoting trade and development.
Anti-EU sentiment should be filled with a progressive content, or else the far right will poison it with racism. Communist and workers’ parties across Europe are increasingly recognising this, which is why the EU elections saw advances for the communist-led United Left in Spain and Left Front in France, as well as for the KKE in Greece and the Portuguese Communist Party.
Most pro-EU parties and fronts in the social democratic or ‘Eurocomunist’ tradition went backwards.
Second, if Labour doesn’t change its pro-EU, pro-austerity line soon, the left and politically advanced sections of the labour movement in Britain will have to consider how they are going to participate effectively not only in the next round of EU elections, but throughout the period between elections as well.
The alternative could well be further advances for UKIP and the anti-EU, pro-austerity right against feeble opposition from the pro-EU Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green Party camp.
Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party and a contributor to 21centurymanifesto
a version of this appears in the Morning Star