Does the EU matter? Part 2

By Louise Borjes

The second EU debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage was somewhat of a repetition of the first one, as the leaders yet again clashed over jobs, immigration, and trade. Statistical claims and emotional rhetoric circulated, although the former to a lesser extent as personal attacks played a more central role this time. YouGov snap polls presented Farage as an even clearer winner than in the first debate, obtaining 68% with Clegg only receiving 27% of those asked.

It is clear where these two politicians stand in the question on EU membership – Clegg wants in, Farage wants out. It is less clear what the two biggest parties want. By not participating in this debate, David Cameron and Ed Miliband are visibly taking the backseat in this question. Since the second debate, YouGov has noted average figure of 13% for UKIP, compared to 11% before the debates. Does this point to a fundamental shift in British politics, and has this second debate offered greater clarity to what the implications could be for the 2015 General Election?

The answer to this is reflected by complexity and uncertainty. First of all, surveys have shown that EU membership is not important to many voters for the next General Election. This seems to be one of two possible reasons Labour and the Conservatives decided to take a step back and not focus on this. The second reason could be that they are internally divided, and that this causes them to focus on other issues on which they are unanimous.

The advantage of being unison in this question gives Clegg and Farage the opportunity to link it to other issues already on the agenda for next year’s election, such as the economy and immigration, subsequently adding EU membership to it.

What was even clearer in the second debate than in the first, was that Farage was more successful in doing so than his counterpart. Farage claimed that EU membership has only made it ‘good for the rich: cheaper nannies, cheaper chauffeurs, and cheaper gardeners’, by being able to employ foreign labour as a result of the free movement of people and that the membership has left a ‘white working class effectively as an underclass’. This rather explicit focus on the negative impact on EU membership in other issues could be seen as an attempt to pluck votes from both sides of the bigger Labour/Conservative camp to vote against EU membership and effectively supporting UKIP.

Although it is yet too early to pin down the exact implications, the debates between Clegg and Farage were an attempt to prove that the EU does matter, the latter appearing to be more successful in doing so than the former – given the results of recent polls showing an overall increase of support for UKIP and their opinions.

However, it seems that UKIP’s sophisticated ability in these debates – that is, being politically correct just enough to combine EU membership with other issues without losing face – has proven at least a short-term success. The disadvantage of being internally divided in this question is a weakness the big parties, particularly the Conservatives and David Cameron, most likely will continue to experience. The result of the complexity this combination of political dynamics demonstrates could therefore pose a fundamental shift in British politics. What is possible to conclude, though, is that the EU does matter. To what extent it will affect the political composition in Whitehall is yet to be seen.

Does the EU matter? Part 1

By Louise Borjes and Dr Benedict Wilkinson 

With the approach of the European Parliament elections in May and the General Election in 2015, the first debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage has reignited the debate about the UK’s role in Europe. The debate itself was, perhaps unsurprisingly, dominated by statistical claims and emotional rhetoric.

The UKIP leader toyed with the idea of what would happen if there were a referendum today on whether or not to join the EU. In this hypothetical situation, he claimed that the UK would not vote to join the EU owing to the ‘£55 million pounds a day membership fee’ and the fact that 485 million Europeans could move to the UK. The deputy prime minister, by contrast, focused on jobs and cross-border crime cooperation, arguing that Britain would be ‘better off in Europe – richer, stronger, safer’.

The popularity of both contrasting claims – and thus the ‘winner’ of the debate – seem fairly clear cut: YouGov carried out a post-debate poll, in which Farage stepped out as the winner with 57% of the reported by whereas Clegg only received 36%.

Debate results

This has come on the back of a considerable rise in UKIP’s political fortunes: a Sunday Times survey noted 7% for UKIP in January 2013 – the same period a year later showed a rise to 14%, topped at 17% in May 2013 according to The Sun.

What then could the implications be for the 2015 General Election? Although it is perhaps too early to make any great predictions, it does point to Farage and UKIP having booked a front-row seat in the general election next year and perhaps even more so in the upcoming European Parliament election in May. In the first place, this was a significant opportunity for UKIP to be seen to have the ability, popularity and power to compete with the three major political parties. Farage demonstrated that he is more than capable of facing up to (even facing down) his competition. Also, given that David Cameron and Ed Miliband both declined their invitations to participate in the debate, Farage could claim to be the face of Britain’s Eurosceptics.

The second point is that, despite Clegg’s consistently polished debating skills, Farage’s emotional and sensationalised rhetoric works effectively when discussing divisive issues, such as immigration. Apart from relating the debate to jobs and ‘the place of Britain in the world’, Clegg took a risk in holding onto the ‘Little England v Great Britain’ card and insisting repeatedly that Farage’s claims were based on dogma and made-up figures. This was a dangerous manoeuvre as it not only publicised Farage’s political claims on a broader stage but also drew both debaters into a ‘tit for tat’ round of claim and counter-claim. Ultimately, Farage’s ability to play on popular emotions meant that his factual claims garnered greater legitimacy and authority than those of Clegg. The corollary is that, as recent polls have shown, the Liberal Democrats have dropped even further in the polls.

The third point (argued also by the Guardian’s Owen Jones), is that connecting the debate on EU membership to broader issues likely to feature in all four parties’ manifestos in next year’s General Election was an effective way of gaining support both for the European Parliament elections and UKIP more generally. Thus, his oft-repeated claim that the cost of EU membership (‘£55 million a day’) in a recovering economic climate is unfair, particularly amongst those on low incomes, allowed Farage to generate more support not only for the European Parliament election in just two months time but also for next year’s General Election. In an Opinium/Observer poll presented shortly after the first debate, UKIP had increased their stake by one percentage point to 15% whilst the Liberal Democrats remained on 10%.

Yet, the effect of this small change on the popularity of the parties and the impact of this on the upcoming elections is difficult to determine after this first debate alone. The candidates’ performances in the second debate will perhaps shed more light on what the future might hold for the UK in the EU and the 2015 General Election.