UKIP and the Lib Dems celebrate

By Graham DinesPolitical EditorAS the UK Independence Party celebrated a stunning electoral victory in the European elections, the Liberal Democrats also had cause for celebration and especially in the East of England.

By Graham Dines

Political Editor

AS the UK Independence Party celebrated a stunning electoral victory in the European elections, the Liberal Democrats also had cause for celebration and especially in the East of England.

UKIP may have picked up an extra seat in this region, but the Lib Dems polled an more than 90,000 votes across the six counties than in 1999, putting Charles Kennedy's party on course to gain seats from Labour at the next General election

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The anti-EU UKIP quadrupled its representation in the European Parliament in last week's poll which was announced on Sunday evening, seizing 12 seats and 17% of the vote.

The battered Conservatives saw their national support fall 10 points to 27%, increasing pressure on leader Michael Howard from Eurosceptics within his party who fear UKIP will make inroads into their support in next year's general election.

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It was also a woeful night for Labour, which picked up just 22% of the vote – its worst result since at least 1918.

The East of England result is difficult to interpret because the number of seats was reduced from eight to seven to take account of enlargement of the EU. The simple facts are that the Tories and Labour each lost one seat while UKIP gained an MEP.

The swing from Tory to UKIP was 11.3% – but Labour's vote fractured and the party's share fell from the 25.2% of 1999 to just 16.22%, a dismal showing for a party in government.

Jeffrey Titford, UKIP MEP for five years, will now be joined in the Strasbourg-Brussels parliament by Tom Wise, from Linslade in Bedfordshire. "In 1999, we put our foot in the door.

"This time, it's a jar – next time we will push it open and take the establishment apart. It's time for the others to stand up and be counted – if they don't take notice of us, we will meet them at the next General Election in Britain."

The region's Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff defiantly pledged to carry on his support for an almost federal Europe. "Liberal Democrats in this campaign have led the fight against British marginalisation in Europe, and against nationalism, racism and xenophobia. Our clear pro-Europe stance has won us an increased share of the vote on the last elections in 1999.

"I am grateful for the renewed mandate as the Lib Dem Euro MP for the region. I will continue to work to enhance Britain's role in a stronger and more democratic European Union that can stand on its own feet in world affairs.

"We will also be in the vanguard of the referendum campaign to win a yes vote for the new EU constitution and to deliver a genuine British contribution to European unity."

Richard Howitt, who is now Labour's lone representative in the East region, remained optimistic, tried to spin away his party's poor showing by emphasising the Conservatives' woes. "The Tories scored 15% less than they need to win at the next General Election, so this was by no means the breakthrough that they required.

"It is clear that there will be a pressing need to make a forceful argument

in the campaign for the expected referendum on the new European


The Conservatives' lead Euro MP in the region Geoffrey Van Orden called on the Prime Minister not to agree the European Constitution at the heads of government summit later this week. "But I fear he will ignore the voice of the British electorate and carry on regardless.

"The Conservatives need to take a long, hard look at why so many of our supporters broke away to UKIP. We did not get our message across and that is clearly a worry."

Robert Kilroy-Silk, whose defection to UKIP is believed to have persuaded tens of thousands of people to shift their vote, said the results indicated that a majority of voters wanted to quit the European Union.

"Clearly the Conservative Party is highly Eurosceptic, and is probably coming increasingly more towards the UKIP line on this particular issue, as we expect them to in the next two weeks or more," said Mr Kilroy-Silk, who was elected for the East Midlands.

"It is extremely patronising to suggest that people who voted out of a very deep and clear conviction or commitment are wasting their vote or protesting. I don't think this is a protest vote. We are the only party throughout the election that had a very clear, straightforward policy. We are the only party that talked about Europe and didn't actually tell any lies.

"We say we can withdraw from Europe and get our country back from Brussels. That's what . . . the majority wanted."

Conservative deputy leader Michael Ancram denied that his party would be forced to shift its policy in response to UKIP's success.

He suggested that many of those who voted for UKIP did not actually want to see Britain leave the EU, but were simply expressing concern about developments in Brussels, including the proposed European Constitution.

"We have made it clear that we don't want to leave Europe. If you look at the UKIP vote, yes there are people voting for it who do want to pull out of Europe, but there are equally people who voted to give a signal at this European election that they wanted to see a firmer stand taken against the way Europe is going at the moment.'

Charles Kennedy described the UKIP result as an "aberration"' which would not be repeated in non-European elections, and said his was the only one of the three major parties to improve its position.

Though he declared himself delighted with his party's showing in last night's European election, Mr Kennedy said it was crucial that his fellow political leaders make a credible European case.

"I would like to think that we can now enjoy a debate with the public about the importance of Europe to our politics. These are serious political debates to have, but people in other parties have got to be ready to rally round and make a credible European case.'

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