It’s a measure of how bad Gordon Brown’s fortunes are that the dismal results for Labour in last week’s European and local council elections are not quite as disastrous as they could be.

In Europe, Labour’s vote fell to 15%, which is frightening (even if vote tallies are always lower for the major parties in the multi-member proportional European system), but managed to come in third, (behind the Tories and the UK Independence Party), but narrowly avoiding a fourth place behind the Lib-Dems, by a few tens of thousands of votes, or even a fifth placing (which occurred in some regions such as Cornwall), behind the Greens.

Thus, in the colourful graphics illustrating the story, the party has avoided slipping off the bottom of the page. But the result is nevertheless epochally awful. Labour’s greatest problem is that the vast majority of UKIP voters (an anti-Europe, anti-immigration party) return to the Tories in a UK election, while Labour’s left — the Lib-Dems and the Greens — do not, the Lib-Dems obviously voting for themselves, and the Greens (when they don’t vote Green) splitting 50-50.

Effectively, the right took half of the European vote, and Labour really only has its 15% plus another 8-10% to bank on. This would suggest that the party is facing a 1983-style disaster in the coming UK general election, where its vote will fall to the mid-20s.

Despite these results, the loss of a brace of councils — including four large “regional area” councils, and the resignation of 11 ministers in the space of a week, Gordon Brown appears to have retained his death-like grip on Number 10, an achievement that some are attributing to the power of a couple of spirited speeches given to the parliamentary party about Labour not having the agenda set for it by petty bullsh-t about expenses etc run from the Daily Telegraph — but more realistically because of the haunting fear that Brown, faced with a spill, (which requires 22-days’ notice), would take the nuclear option and ask the Queen to call an election, thus handcuffing himself to the party, hostage-drama style.

Only the most delusional supporter would believe that Labour can win a poll now — the only game in town is to not lose badly enough to be out for a generation. The party lost in Wales for goddsake, the first time it’s done so since 1918, when it was still competing with the Liberals for the left vote.

Nevertheless, things may not be quite as bad as the recent European vote makes out. Commentators were wringing their hands about the low turn out — 43% — for the Strasbourg vote. I’m surprised that anyone turns out at all, and can only conclude that this is because they believe that the European Parliament has real power. It doesn’t. The EU is run by its commissioners, as representatives of the heads of member states, and by the European Court of Justice, which sets binding rules. The parliament can make “laws” — but they can be instantly struck down by the Commission. The place is the ultimate talking shop, like one of those junior football matches they used to play before the grand final, with the moveable goalposts.*

Protest voting is the parliament’s main purpose, which is why UKIP — a group that doesn’t want its own nation to be part of the organisation it is standing candidates for — does so well, and is to some degree symbolic of the whole shebang. Campaigning parties such as the Greens use it to get office space, staff, access to official reports etc and the world’s biggest emptiest soapbox.

Everyone knows this, which is why the triumphalist note about a right-wing triumph — spread like eczema locally across today’s The Australian — is so obviously wrong, if not actively disinformational.

For Greg “Simulator” Sheridan, the result is a repudiation of social democracy. It’s nothing of the sort. The plain fact is that the right-wing parties of Western Europe have only prospered by dropping even the most vestigial opposition to a substantially social democratic system. Sweden has had a “right” wing government for years — they haven’t changed the basis of social life as measured in free education, free healthcare, mass public housing or generous entitlements (include 450 days paid parental leave). Merkel has made no real changes in Germany. In France, Sarkozy talked a big game, but has ducked a fight to reform France’s sclerotic business regulation system, public utilities and much more.

Even in Thatcher’s Britain, as was, Cameron’s Tories, while by far the most (to say only) West European party with a neo-liberal strand, have made themselves acceptable by moving to the left on a whole series of environmental and social policies. What is striking about Europe’s centre-right is its utter complacency and unwillingness to challenge the inherited social-democratic status quo — even in areas where everyone agrees reform is desperately needed. Kent, in England, is still filling up with French businesses, French lawyers and accountants etc. Why? Because it is still far easier to register a company in the UK and run it by a commute on the Eurostar, than it is to jump through the hoops in Sarkozy’s France.

Merkel, Sarkozy, Reinhardt and even Cameron know they live or die by the approval of an electorate whose one shared value is that they don’t want Europe to be more American in key areas — the US health care system has always been the greatest talisman the left can wave in front of its electorate. Now that the right have stopped challenging it (not even Thatcher took on the NHS), they’ve become acceptable, especially as an alternative to a jaded and time-serving left.

Europe’s politics currently represents a becalmed, cautious and uninspiring truce, created in the ruins of the left-right split, thrilling no-one, and prospering absent of any conditions wherein which people might begin to demand something more, other, else. Even parties of the left — Die Links in Germany, the anti-capitalist party in France — or hard Right groups such as the BNP couldn’t get more than a couple of seats each.

How long this arrangement survives depends, one must presume, on whether the global financial crisis is coming to the beginning of the end — or the end of the beginning.

*Readers wishing to know more should consult my essay on EU institutions written in completion of Unit 103 of my European Studies masters (deferred) at Uppsala University — Falultisk Teologi, Building Four, office 303, third drawer down on left. The return flight etc would probably cost you about five grand. Mark was A-minus, the less than perfect result due to poor umlaut placement.