Joseph Bevan analyses the upcoming European Parliamentary Elections in the United Kingdom, that seem to be a fight between an insurgent right-wing populist party and one of Britain's oldest political institutions, the Labour Party.
On 23rd May, voters across the United Kingdom will be heading to the polls to vote in the European Parliamentary elections. The government had hoped that it could get Theresa May’s Brexit deal through the House of Commons and thus, avoid these elections. Following the triple defeat of the deal, and utter chaos that has ensued, that is now unlikely. Polling taken throughout 2019 has indicated the elections could yield a historic result, with Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party looking set for victory. If this were to be the case, it would be the second European Parliamentary election in a row that a party led by Nigel Farage has achieved the feat of dislodging the Conservative or Labour Parties from first place in a national election. For some context, prior to 2014, the last time that a party other than the Conservatives or Labour finished with the most votes at a UK wide election was the 1906 general election, when the Liberal Party surged to a landslide victory under Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman. In an election framed by Brexit, with both the government and opposition suffering a major collapse in opinion poll support, the final result could have a profound impact on both the politics of the European Union and the internal politics of the Conservative and Labour parties. This article will preview the upcoming elections, taking a look at what has happened in the past and what appears to be a challenge to the established order with a surge in support for the politics of what was once described as the fringe of British politics.
First and foremost, it is important to remember that these elections are likely to be fought with a very low rate of participation. Since 1999, when the electoral system for most of the United Kingdom was switched from First Past the Post to the d’Hondt method, turnout has been between 24 and 38.5 percent. It is therefore important that the results do not get over-analysed. In 1999, for example, William Hague’s Conservatives won the elections with a clear lead over the Labour Party and the highest share of the vote that has been won at a European election in the United Kingdom. Spoiler alert, two years later the Labour Party was soundly re-elected with an overall majority of 167-seats. In 2004, the Conservatives once again trounced Labour but eleven months later, Labour was returned to power for a historic third term. In short, the results of these elections are very unlikely to tell us very much about the ability of the main parties to win the next general election. Indeed, as a form of proportional representation, albeit a very disproportionate one, is used, voters are more inclined to vote for their party of choice rather than for their ‘least-worst’ main party. Because of this, and the current polling collapse of both the Conservative and Labour parties, smaller parties may secure a substantial share of the vote compared to at a general election. Indeed, when these elections used the First Past the Post electoral system at the elections from 1979 to 1994, there was a similar voting pattern to general elections, with the Conservatives and Labour polling an average of 73.9 percent of the vote between them at the four First Past the Post elections, compared to 49.4 percent of the vote at the four d’Hondt elections from 1999 onwards. That is not to say that there was no success of other parties at the First Past the Post elections. The Green Party achieved an electoral milestone at the 1989 election, winning 14.5 percent of the vote and 2,299,287 votes. To date, this remains the best performance of the Green Party at any election in the United Kingdom in terms of both votes won and share of the vote. Although this years’ election is not directly comparable to 1989 due to the change in electoral system, it is important not to over analyse support for the others. Following their record-breaking performance in 1989, the Green Party polled a mere 0.5 percent of the vote at the 1992 general election. This demonstrates the willingness of voters to lend their votes to other parties at European elections and this is certainly more prevalent under the d’Hondt system, as these smaller parties are more likely to win representation than they would at a general election.
Whilst the d’Hondt electoral system is a form of proportional representation, it is almost certainly the most disproportionate of the proportional representation systems available. Given the aversion of the Conservative and Labour Parties to proportional representation, it is almost as if someone decided to deliberately pick the least proportional version of a proportional representation system that they could find. Each region has a set number of seats, for example, the West Midlands sends seven representatives to the European Parliament, whilst Wales sends four. Voters cast a ballot for a party list in each region and that regions’ seats are allocated using the d’Hondt formula. When the votes are counted, the party with the most votes takes the first seat. To allocate the second and subsequent seats, the original vote totals are divided by the number of seats parties have gained, plus one. In effect, this means a party’s vote count is halved after winning its first seat, and reduced by two-thirds after its second, and so on. Whilst this system ensures some proportionality, it still favours parties with a geographically concentrated vote, and as a result it still works to the benefit of the larger political parties. So, whilst it is more proportional than the First Past the Post system in use for general elections, it is still pretty disproportionate. In the 1986 Spanish general election, conducted using the d’Hondt method, the Socialist Party (PSOE) won an overall majority of the seats, with only 44.1 percent of the vote. In the 2009 European Elections in London, the Conservative and Labour parties received 48.7 percent of the vote but won 62.5 percent of the seats. In short, the d’Hondt system shares many of the problems of First Past the Post and thus, votes for smaller parties can still be wasted.
At the previous election, in 2014, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) made history and won the election with 26.6 percent of the national popular vote and 24 MEPs in the British delegation to the European Parliament. The Labour Party finished second, with 24.4 percent of the vote and the Conservatives third, with 23.1 percent of the vote. This was historic, as it marked the first time that a party other than the Conservatives or Labour had topped the poll at a national election in the United Kingdom since 1906. This result, alongside the general rise of UKIP in the opinion polls, was one of the major reasons that Prime Minister David Cameron opted to promise to call the EU referendum in the first place. Since then, the political scene could not have changed more. Less than twelve months later, the Conservatives stormed to their first overall majority in the House of Commons at the 2015 general election and Ed Miliband was replaced as Labour leader by Jeremy Corbyn. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union on 23rd June 2016 and David Cameron was replaced as Prime Minister by Theresa May. The United Kingdom triggered article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and commenced its exit of the European Union. Theresa May subsequently reversed on her promise not to hold a general election and in the shadow of opinion polls projecting a Conservative landslide, she decided to go to the country and was rewarded with the loss of her overall majority and a hung parliament. Undeterred, the Prime Minister continued to negotiate a deal of her own preference with the European Union which was subsequently voted down by parliament in the largest defeat for a sitting government in the post-war era. Despite this, the government went on to survive a confidence motion tabled by the Labour Party and the Prime Minister has survived attempts to oust her by the Conservative Party. Following a standoff with commons speaker, John Bercow, the deal was then rejected by parliament on another two occasions and the Prime Minister opened talks with Jeremy Corbyn to try and reach a compromise with the Labour Party that would get a deal through parliament. Following the extension of article 50 from 29th March 2019, the spectre of the European parliamentary elections has always been in the air and whilst the Prime Minister has been keen to avoid them, it became inevitable when article 50 was further extended to the end of June and then to Halloween.
These elections will be the first outing for the two new kids on the block in British politics, Change UK (The Independent Group) and from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Change UK was formed on 18th February 2019 as the Independent Group, when eight Labour MPs and three Tory MPs defected from their party in protest. The Independent Group initially performed well in opinion polls but after several gaffes, have found themselves languishing below five percent. The Brexit Party was officially launched in Coventry on 12th April 2019 by former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage. Given UKIP’s recent attempt to outflank the British National Party (BNP) as the party of the racist, xenophobic right under new leader Gerrard Batten, the Brexit Party has quickly established itself in the opinion polls and as the party for those annoyed with the Conservatives’ handling of the Brexit negotiations. Prior to the launch of the Brexit Party, it looked likely that the Labour Party would comfortably emerge as the largest party in the British delegation of MEPs and would possibly poll a larger share of the vote than any single party at a European Parliamentary election since 1999. Labour’s strength, however, has evaporated in recent weeks and it now looks a near certainty that the Brexit Party will top the poll.
The Brexit party has benefitted from a huge amount of dissatisfaction with the way in which the Conservative Party has simply failed to deliver the result of the referendum and from the fact that UKIP have seen their support collapse following their lurch to the far right. 14 MEPs and several leading figures in UKIP defected to the Brexit Party and it has managed to establish itself as the party fighting to deliver Brexit. Nigel Farage has been given a considerable amount of airtime on television, taking part in a BBC question time panel and as a guest on Sunday morning’s Andrew Marr show. Undoubtedly, this level of publicity is helping Nigel Farage’s party, but there is clearly momentum behind the party following the government’s failure to get Britain out of the European Union on time. The party is clearly benefiting from support of Conservative voters, who are considerably more Eurosceptic than the parliamentary party. A crushing survey for the Conservatives found that 40 percent of the party’s own councillors are intending to vote for Nigel Farage’s party over the Conservatives. Farage has also benefited from running some prominent candidates, including former Conservative Minister of State for Prisons, Anne Widdecombe, and journalist, Annunziata Rees-Mogg, a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate and journalist. The party has also secured the somewhat surprising (and perhaps unwanted) endorsement of George Galloway and several communist groupings. Despite being everything but working class, the 2010-2015 UKIP experience proved that Nigel Farage resonates with working class voters. Farage has been travelling around the country and holding rallies, and anecdotal evidence suggests that these have been well attended. Farage has already framed the election as a battle between the establishment and the people, a strategy that he is hoping will pay off on 23rd May. As things stand, the party has no manifesto and no policies other than Brexit but in the Brexit party, disgruntled leave voters of all flavours have a clear choice of party to vote for. Nigel Farage and his team will be hoping that this is enough to propel the party into first place, the ultimate protest vote.
Unlike the Brexiteers, remain inclined voters have a multitude of different parties available to them and they are all fighting hard for remain votes. Unlike the Brexit Party, Change UK has been less successful in challenging the old order. The party was quickly forced to remove several candidates from its slate, owing to several embarrassing comments and has only once polled outside of double-digits. At this level, it is very unlikely that the party will win any more than one or two seats, if they manage to win any at all. Remain inclined voters also have the option of the Green Party, who won three seats in 2014. The Greens performed well in the local elections on 2nd May and look likely to perform well nationally on 23rd May. One poll has even had the party ahead of the Conservatives. Once again, this may not amount to big gains in terms of MEPs elected. Both the Green Party and Change UK are running on a People’s Vote platform and the Greens are an obvious choice for younger people on the left of the political spectrum that want to remain in the European Union. After five years in coalition with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats suffered a near political wipe out. They dropped to just two black cabs’ worth of MPs in 2015 and barely increased on that number in 2017. Their support for a People’s Vote was an attempt to appeal to the 48 percent that voted to remain. This strategy has so far failed to come into fruition, with the party going backwards in terms of vote share in 2017 and Labour winning majority support from remain voters. At the 2018 local elections, the party made modest gains but absolutely nothing on the scale of a recovery. The party was very much pronounced as over. That was, until, 2nd May 2019. At the local elections held on that day, Vince Cable’s party gained 704 councils and took control of ten additional councils. In the projected national share of the vote, the party finished with 19 percent, its best showing since 2010. With a simple message, ‘bollocks to Brexit’, the Liberal Democrats have started to see an uptick in both their Westminster and European voting intentions. The last three European voting intention polls have placed the Liberal Democrats ahead of the Conservatives in third place. This could yield a major increase in Liberal Democrat representation in the European parliament, and it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that the party could poll as high as 18 percent and challenge the Labour Party for second place. The problem for remain voters is the fact that unlike the Brexiteers, they have a multitude of parties to vote for. Change UK and the Green Party have been unaccommodating of any kind of electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats and this may turn out to be a strategic error that they regret. A ‘remain pact’ may well have won double the number of seats that the parties look likely to win between them. Of course, this is merely supposition and the local elections have certainly put the wind into the sails of the Liberal Democrats and alone, they may provide remain voters with a party around which to coalesce.
With the electorate rapidly dividing along Brexit lines, the two main parties have a major problem. They are both being outflanked and squeezed by what could be described as extremes. The Conservatives have seen their support totally collapse, in both European and Westminster voting intention polls. At the 2017 general election, the Conservatives polled their highest share of the vote in Great Britain since 1979, 43.5 percent. A ComRes poll taken on 9th May 2019 placed the party eight points behind Labour and one point behind the Brexit Party, with just 19 percent of the vote. This is the lowest that the Conservative Party has polled since a Gallup poll on 9th January 1995 placed the party 43.5 percentage points behind Tony Blair’s Labour Party with just 18.5 percent of the vote. That poll is the first to show the Conservatives in third place, but the general trend of Westminster polls has been an almost total collapse of Tory voting intention. This has also been reflected in European polls, with the party plummeting from 36 percent in the first poll for the elections to a figure around ten percent in recent polls. This could, hypothetically, lead to a virtual meltdown for the party, leaving them perilously close to winning no MEPs.
For the Labour Party, their ambiguous position on Brexit may finally be starting to hurt the party electorally. The Labour vote in 2017 weighed in at 64 percent for remain, although many of the party’s heartland constituencies voted to leave. As a result, the party has attempted to appeal to both leave and remain voters. This strategy was successful in 2017 but with much of Labour’s 2017 vote being made up of younger, more remain inclined voters, it is now alienating voters on both sides of the debate. Despite an apparent shift to a People’s Vote if all options were exhausted, the party’s stance has begun to lose its appeal. On Sunday, for example, several senior party figures gave conflicting interviews as to whether the party was in support of a People’s Vote. There is also a danger for the party that their negotiations with the Conservative Party may begin to make the party appear as if they are going to enable a Tory Brexit. As with the Conservatives, the party is being punished in both Westminster and European voting intention polls, currently polling at levels not seen since prior to the 2017 general election, when the party looked like it was on course for a landslide defeat. The party currently looks set to emerge as the second largest party in the United Kingdom delegation of MEPs, and it may benefit from the fact that it can argue that it is the only party now in the running to defeat the Brexit Party of Nigel Farage. The party is faced with the danger of being seen as a Brexit supporting party and this could well drive 2017 Labour voters to the smaller parties in protest.
In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) looks set to benefit from its traditional support amongst nationalist voters, but also those that want to remain in the European Union. As a result, the party has the potential to score its best ever result at a European Parliamentary election. Considering that the party has formed the Scottish government at Holyrood for twelve-years, this is quite remarkable but recent elections have demonstrated the readiness of Scottish voters to move from party to party. At the 2010 general election, the Labour Party romped home with 41 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies. Five years later, the party was decimated with the SNP completing a near clean sweep of Scotland, with 56 seats. After winning a shock overall majority at the 2011 Holyrood election and winning a historic third term in 2016, Scotland looked firmly to be in the hands of the SNP after years of dominance by the Labour Party. Yet, the 2017 general election completely turned the national picture on its head. The SNP were punished for Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second referendum on Scottish Independence and saw their number of seats decline from 56 to 35. The biggest beneficiary of this 21-seat collapse were the Conservatives, who put in their best performance in Scotland since the Thatcher years. Almost instantly, the Sturgeon agenda of a second independence referendum was put on hold. If the opinion polls are to be believed, the SNP are once again advancing, and this could potentially provide them with their best result at a European Parliamentary election in the party’s history, whilst the Conservatives look set to have their recovery stopped in its tracks. This would leave the SNP with some post-election momentum, after having their rapid increase in support dramatically reversed in 2017.
So far, there have been 20 published Great Britain wide opinion polls, alongside ComRes’ multi-level regression and post-stratification (MRP) model and four regional polls. Initially, both Labour and the Conservatives looked set to be in a position of strength, with a hypothetical poll taken in January 2019 by NumberCrunchr had the two main parties both up significantly on their 2014 showing, with Labour on 37 percent, and the Conservatives on 36 percent. These would be, by far, the best European election results for either party of the main parties. Of course, at that stage, it looked unlikely that the elections would actually take place, and at the same time, the two main parties polled a combined share of the vote of 80 percent in the accompanying Westminster poll. Labour continued to lead in the polls, until the official launch of the Brexit party. The first poll taken after the official launch of Farage’s party saw the new party fly into the lead, with 27 percent of the vote to Labour’s 22. Since then, two polls have showed a Labour lead, nine have registered a Brexit Party lead and two have been tied.
As the Brexit Party’s share of voting intention increased, the Conservative share rapidly plummeted. In the last eight polls, their position has been below 15 percent. If that were to come to pass, it would be the worst performance for a governing party at a European Parliamentary Election in the United Kingdom, ever. That unwanted record was previously held by Gordon Brown’s Labour Party, who polled just 15.2 percent of the vote in 2009. This decline in voting intention for the Conservatives has coincided with a dramatic collapse and reversal in fortunes in recent Westminster polls. On 11thMarch 2019, the Conservatives were polling an average of 41 percent, well clear of the Labour Party on 32.5 percent. By 9th May, Tory support has fallen by a massive 16.2-points, with the party polling just 24.8 percent. In European voting intention, the party has fallen into fourth place on some occasions, with the Liberal Democrats polling in third and on occasion, the party has even dropped below the Green Party into fifth place. The Labour Party has also fallen, by 2.5-points, to 30 percent and this has also started to show through to some extent in European voting intention. The party has polled second place since mid-April with a share in the mid-twenties, roughly level with its 2014 performance. It is yet to be seen if this is a rogue poll, but a YouGov poll taken from 8th to 9th May put the Labour Party just one point ahead of the Liberal Democrats, with its support down into the teens with 16 percent. Of course, this could be an outlier and only future polls will show if this is a trend, but recent polling has shown a general slight incline in Liberal Democrat support. If this turns out to be a trend and the Labour Party does not at least hold its 2014 vote share, it will not only be the worst performance for a British government at European elections, but also the worst result for the official opposition. In 2014, the opinion polls were relatively accurate in forecasting a close race between UKIP, Labour and the Conservatives. The average of the final six polls slightly overestimated UKIP, Labour and the Liberal Democrats whilst underestimating the Conservatives.
ComRes’ MRP model (data taken from 1st to 7th May) shows a similar picture to the national opinion polls, with a one-point lead for the Labour Party. Their data shows the Labour Party ahead in Wales, Yorkshire and Humber, London, the North West and the North East and the Brexit Party ahead in the East Midlands, East of England, South East England, South West England and the West Midlands. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party are ahead. The most striking thing about ComRes’ model is that the Labour Party has moved ahead of the Conservatives in all regions. Polls taken in Scotland have shown the SNP in a commanding position and likely to double their representation. In London, Labour, UKIP and the Conservatives have taken a drastic fall on 2014 with increases for the Brexit Party, Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Change UK.
As things stand, it is difficult to say what will happen on 23rd May. It looks very likely that the Brexit Party will win the most votes and seats, and the Labour Party will finish comfortably in second place. The size of the gap between these two parties is largely unknown, it could be anything from a less than a percentage point to a much larger lead of 10-points or more. The Labour Party is suffering from its ambiguous stance on Brexit and this may well push some of its newer supporters to smaller parties such as the Greens and Liberal Democrats. For the Conservatives, it is unlikely that the party will poll over 15 percent, and Theresa May’s party could suffer a cataclysmic defeat which sees them left with just a handful of MEPs. UKIP will almost certainly be wiped out. At this stage, it would not be wise to rule out Labour winning the most votes and seats, the Liberal Democrats beating Labour into second place, or the Conservatives finishing with less support than the Green Party. Voters seem inclined to punish the Conservative and Labour Parties at the moment, and they may well both find themselves with a result that they are unhappy with. A win for the Brexit Party will undoubtedly yield Nigel Farage claiming a mandate for a no-deal Brexit, despite the fact that the combined share of the vote for the remain inclined parties may be bigger than that of the Brexit Party. Overall, it will be interesting to see how voters chose to treat the established order compared the new kids on the block. When the results are finally announced, history could well be made, but given that turnout is still likely to be low, it would be very foolish to read too much into them as an indicator of what the wider electorate is thinking. In the next week, everything could change. The Labour Party seems to be having an internal debate on how to approach the elections and Nigel Farage’s party is finding itself under intense scrutiny. The results may change everything, or they may change nothing. One thing is certain, unlike in 2014 when the opinion polls showed a three-horse race between UKIP, Labour and the Conservatives, the battle is likely to be between Nigel Farage’s insurgent party of the populist right and one of Britain’s longstanding institutions, the Labour Party.