Bell's voters hold keys to Europe

WHEN the Conservatives announced their candidates for Europe more than a year ago, they were predicting that four definitely would be elected and their aim was to go all out to win a fifth seat.

Graham Dines

WHEN the Conservatives announced their candidates for Europe more than a year ago, they were predicting that four definitely would be elected and their aim was to go all out to win a fifth seat.

It was an implausible scenario then and with just two days left before polling day, it simply isn't going to happen.

Given the public anger with politicians over the Westminster expenses scandal, the Conservatives will be doing well to win four seats and the Liberal Democrats believe that the Tories could well fall far enough to give them only two MEPs.

For a party that counts the six counties of East Anglia and the Chilterns - a far better description than the East of England - as one of its heartlands, a return of just two Euro MPs is unthinkable.

But these are strange times. A 5.7% swing from the Conservatives to the UK Independence Party would give UKIP three MEPs and make it the leading party representing this region in the European Parliament.

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The permutations are endless. Labour last time won just one seat when its vote share fell to 16.2%. Given Gordon Brown's problems with the economy and the naming and shaming of MPs abusing the expenses system at Westminster, a collapse in the Labour vote is probable.

Education Secretary Ed Balls said last week: “In European and local elections, held before a general election, the governing parties tend not to do so well. That is going to happen to us. Of course it is.”

The Greens need to pick up another 4% to win a seat, which is entirely plausible because the party seems to be the natural home for Labour protest votes.

If Europe and Britain's future in the EU figure anywhere in the voters' minds, then it will be those who want us to pull out who will be those more determined to vote.

UKIP should be the beneficiary, but there are so many minor parties standing on an anti Europe ticket that they could cancel each other out.

The British National Party believes it can win a seat on its platform of British jobs for British workers, an end to immigration, and withdrawal from the EU. The support it is picking up has put Labour in a panic - if the BNP appeals to any group, then it's blue collar workers who would normally vote Labour.

United Kingdom First is a breakaway group from the UK Independence Party, led in the East of England by former UKIP activist and one-time presenter of television's One Man and His Dog Robin Page, who says: “Now is the time to free Britain from the EU, political correctness and the gravy train - a �50billion annual waste.”

Libertas is the only party fielding candidates in several of the 27 member states of the European Union. Libertas is certainly Eurosceptic but, like the UK Tories, wants to reform the system from within rather than pulling out of the EU.

However, overriding everything else in the East of England is the Martin Bell factor.

The man in the white suit may not be standing, but he is still in the background. In 2004, 93,028 disaffected voters upset with the system for electing Euro MPs and also keen to give the main parties a bloody nose, backed Bell.

Where those 93,028 people put their cross this time - and Bell has given his endorsement to the Greens - could well seal Labour's fate.