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.

How to Transcend Fear

By Katie Brown and Dr Benedict Wilkinson

In George Orwell’s 1984, O’Brien, the thought police agent, argues that power is best asserted through fear and suffering. The Ingsoc, he explains, has created the ‘exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined’; it is a world which relies on ‘fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon’. ‘The old civilizations’, he concludes, ‘claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy’.

For O’Brien and his dystopian political agenda, fear and pain are the key weapons deployed to stifle change, ensure the continuation of the status quo and safeguard the continued survival of a shadowy, if powerful, political elite. In a recent lecture series, Professor Dominique Moïsi, picked up on this theme of fear as a tool of political control, moving from totalitarian regimes to the democratic West. While dictators have long sought to bolster their power by playing on the fears of insecurity of their populations, for Moïsi, this is precisely the strategy employed by populist parties, who, in the pursuit of power, simultaneously feed the fears of their citizens and promise to solve these fears. However, Moisi asserts, this is just one example of the myriad ways in which fear is at the heart of contemporary politics.

The same politics of fear are visible on the broader stage of international relations. For Moïsi, Asia is defined by the ‘culture of hope’, thanks to economic success and ever-increasing power; the Arab and Muslim worlds share the ‘culture of humiliation’; and ‘the West’, meaning the US and Europe, is united by ‘the culture of fear’.

Moïsi explains that the West is currently plagued by many different types of fear: fear of imminent danger from terrorism; fear of ‘the Other’, brought closer to home through immigration; anxiety about being left behind economically and politically, about loss of control over our own countries in an increasingly interconnected world, about global issues like climate change. In short, ‘fear, the dominant emotion of the West is above all a reaction to the events and feelings taking place elsewhere.

Moïsi concludes with a reflection on how to transcend fear, offering three main claims. Firstly, ‘transcending fear means accepting the inevitability of change’. Moïsi observes that while war has decreased, democracies have increased, and life expectancy has improved dramatically, we still concentrate on the destabilising nature of change. As such, in order to transcend fear, both an acceptance of the inevitability of change and increased education about the nature of change are essential. Moreover, as ‘ignorance is the best tool of intolerance’, Moïsi maintains that cultural knowledge, that is ‘the ability to grasp the cultures of others and to respect them’ is crucial. Consequently, ‘transcending fear means better leadership’. Moïsi argues that ‘leadership has gone wrong’ in the democratic world, and that our leaders must now realise the limits of their power.  He condemns ‘populist demagogy’ for encouraging and producing fear in order to win votes, and for offering scapegoats as ‘simple answers to complex questions’. Instead, he contends, we need ‘enlightened pedagogy’: that is, leaders have a responsibility to explain the complex world in such a way that does not allow for fear.

Will the Centre Hold?

By Professor Anand Menon and Dr Benedict Wilkinson

The European Union, it seems, is never far from the headlines these days. Chancellor Merkel’s visit to the UK last week provoked another round of fevered speculation as to what concessions, if any, David Cameron might be able to extract from his European partners in his quest for a renegotiation of the UK’s EU settlement. Nigel Farage, for his part, observed caustically at UKIP’s Spring Conference that ‘fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union… is not obtainable. [It] is a con’. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have launched an unashamedly pro-European campaign for the forthcoming European Parliament elections, while the Labour Party seem happy to sit this one out, refusing to commit to a referendum on EU membership while criticising the Conservatives for their ‘euro obsession’.

What, then, will the election reveal about the state of UK public opinion on the EU?  Will UKIP benefit from its hostility to membership and cause a political earthquake by receiving the largest number of votes? Are the Conservatives set to finish third in a national election under universal suffrage for the first time? What, more broadly, will be the implications of the outcome?

Polls provide at least some answers to these questions. At a “Europe in Crisis” project event run by King’s Policy Institute last week, Peter Kellner, President of YouGov, argued that ‘if the elections were held tomorrow, UKIP would overtake the Conservatives’. UKIP, he pointed out, has improved its performance in successive European elections, moving from 4th in 1992, to 3rd with 16.1% of the vote in 2004, to 2nd with 16.5% of the vote in 2009. The numbers, he observed, speak for themselves.

As to why the mainstream parties are unable to challenge UKIP’s narrative, Kellner had a striking argument. The crisis itself is not the main driver for the relative success of UKIP style populism. Rather, ‘Marx,’ he declared, ‘was right.’ The development of capitalism in recent decades mirrored Marxist predictions from the mid nineteenth century. The neoliberal turn of the 1980s unleashed a process of freeing markets. As a direct result, we saw a reversal of trends from the post-war period, with rising inequality, job insecurity, and a larger share of GDP going towards profits than labour. The real driver of the kind of populism that UKIP represents, then, is growing alienation – the sense that ‘life is not what it used to be’.

However, the implications for the mainstream political parties are, perhaps, not as dire as they may seem. Levels of awareness about the EU and its institutions are extremely low in the UK. As David Cowling, a Visiting Senior Research fellow at King’s Policy Institute pointed out, ‘Europe’ really does not matter to the overwhelming majority of British voters when it comes to voting patterns in general elections. Yet the political parties place disproportionate emphasis on the issue. Hence the consistent refusal of the Conservative Party to elect its most popular (and one of its most Europhile) MPs – Ken Clarke – as leader.

A strong anti-EU line has not, however, benefitted a political party in any of the ten General Elections held since UK accession. The Labour party was committed to UK exit in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 2001, the Conservatives campaigned under the slogan of ‘a countdown to save the pound,’ but slumped to their worst defeat of the twentieth century. Europe, quite simply, ‘does not float the boat of the British public’. In the MORI issues index, which involves the spontaneous selection of the most important issue facing Britain by those surveyed, the EU comes out top for only 2 per cent of respondents.

Although Europe will probably not be a major issue for the 2015 general election, the European Parliament elections will, nonetheless, represent an opportunity to kick the political establishment. The election will also, across Europe, represent an opportunity for voters to register their declining levels of trust in the EU itself. This is hardly surprising given the Union’s perceived lack of democratic legitimacy, the austerity measures associated with Brussels and, in the minds of many, responsibility for significant rises of (in particular, youth) unemployment.

Graph depicting levels of trust in the European Union

The fact that polls indicate decreasing levels of trust in EU institutions, however, is not necessarily a bad thing, as Catherine de Vries, Professor in European Politics at the University of Oxford, argued at the same event. James Madison, she pointed out, argued not only that citizens do not need to trust their representatives, but also that scepticism is a sign of a functioning, healthy political system. In the case of the EU, data suggests not only that lack of trust in the EU is increasing, but also that there has been a gradual decline in the number of people who respond ‘don’t know’ when asked if they trust the EU. This suggests that public attitudes are crystallising and that Europeans are becoming increasingly engaged with debates on the EU.

The picture is thus mixed. In the UK, whilst the EU itself still fails to provoke much in the way of popular interest, the elections represent an opportunity for the electorate to punish the political mainstream. Across the continent as a whole, whilst such motives will certainly not be absent, voters will also be registering their genuine unease at the actions of the EU and their impact.