Friday, 26 September 2008

Security issues set to dominate 2009 election

The five yearly elections for the European Parliament usually bring the Liberal Democrats a few headaches. We now have 11 MEPs and they make a real difference. (Take just one example: Chris Davies’s high-profile work on carbon capture and storage and cutting vehicle emissions.) But many Liberal Democrat supporters simply don’t turn out to vote for the party at the Euro-elections; they are even less inclined to vote than other parties’ supporters. After every European election, we hear claims that the party hierarchy didn’t take the election seriously enough. There’s also the perennial tussle over whether to fight the elections on “European issues” or to invite voters to send the government a message.

Last week’s Lib Dem conference approved a new policy paper on Europe. This tried to straddle the argument by focussing on how Europe can help improve peoples’ lives, in such areas as economic reform, agriculture, energy and security. Things like enlargement, competences and budget setting were there, but they took a back seat.

Now, Eurobarometer has produced a new survey that should give us all pause for thought.

First, it looks as if voter turnout will, once again, be low. Eurobarometer found that just 3 per cent of British voters know that the European Parliament elections will be held next year. This is the lowest figure in the EU. More than three in five say they are somewhat or very uninterested in the elections. That’s a bit higher than the EU average – 51 per cent.

Only one in five British voters say they will definitely vote. Those who don’t plan to vote give as their main reasons: a belief that their vote won’t change anything (75 per cent); a lack of interest in the European elections (71 per cent); a lack of knowledge about the role of the European Parliament (67 per cent), a feeling that the Parliament does not address the issues that concern them (65 per cent); a lack of information (65 per cent) and a lack of interest in European affairs (59 per cent). British voters simply won’t turn out to vote in large numbers next year unless those figures - amongst the highest on the Europe - come down.

Second, the likely battleground issues of the election are not favourable terrain for the Liberal Democrats. Most European voters want the campaign to focus first and foremost on economic themes that affect their everyday lives – unemployment, economic growth and inflation, in that order. Next on their lists are global and security-related themes – crime, terrorism, fighting climate change and immigration, in that order. Last of all, they look to themes directly related to the European Union, such as the single currency, agriculture and the powers and competences of European institutions.

But British voters see the issues very differently. They want the European election campaign to concentrate on immigration (picked by 72 per cent as their first or second issue), followed by terrorism (51 per cent) and then crime (46 per cent). These are followed, well behind, by economic growth (34 per cent), unemployment (33 per cent) and the fight against climate change (31 per cent). Issues that Liberal Democrat campaigners are likely to be interested in came well down. For instance, just 15 per cent nominated agriculture first or second and barely one in ten picked the Euro.

Liberal Democrats have clear policies at European level on immigration, terrorism and security issues. The question is, whether the policies are sufficiently distinctive for the party to campaign on them and, for that matter, whether we are comfortable in doing so.

There are two health warnings. One is that the survey work was undertaken in March – May when the economic mood was simply bad, as opposed to lousy at the moment. By next spring, UK voters may want to focus more on economic matters. The other is that the survey does not (and cannot) differentiate between definite / possible Liberal Democrat voters and others. The issues that float their boats may be somewhat different.

Let’s not kid ourselves though. Seven voters in ten are most concerned about immigration. That’s a sledgehammer we just can’t ignore.

If only there was an easy way to motivate Liberal Democrat supporters out to vote in elections like these . . .

1 comment:

Gordon said...

Eurobarometer is no doubt right to find that British and continental voters have different policy 'laundry lists' as Lakoff and Brewer put it.

But, as they point out, what primarily motivates voters is their perception of a party's cognitive policy - its stance on values, frames etc.

And here the Lib Dems are all at sea. In general (and consistent with generally understood ideas of Liberalism) LDs want to devolve power, increase accountability and so on.

Yet when it comes to the EU all this is suspended in favour of supporting an unaccountable and remote bureaucracy. This amounts to a stake driven right through the heart of LD constitutional thinking - if there is any!

What would be nice for a change, is to hear the LDs arguing for something because it is right, and not just because of opinion polls. I for one would love to support a liberal European project - but that is not the EU or anything like it.