After the British government failed to arrange Britain’s exit from the European Union on 29 March, the country must now elect members for the European Parliament (MEPs) on 23 May. Few people wanted this to happen, but the state of EU law is such that it can’t be waved away.
These elections have a rather interesting place in the country’s democracy. Alas this has nothing to do with the job that MEPs have to do, though that is an important one. Because the result is inconsequential so far as most people are concerned, it is an ideal vehicle for a protest vote. And with a large array of parties competing for votes, there is no need for voters to choose one of the main ones. Indeed, for a strong message of protest it helps if you don’t. And in 2019 the vote is probably genuinely meaningless, as it is still likely that the country will leave the European Union before the year is out. So the result could be quite revealing about the population’s real political preferences.
The Euro elections, as they are often called, have played an important role in bringing Brexit about. The United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), when led by Nigel Farage, understood how to use the opportunity better than any other. It has provided the party with a platform and even political respectability. It came second on 2009 and the first in 2014. This served to raise the issue of Britain’s EU membership up the political agenda, and to scare the Conservative leadership into promising a referendum. The elections have also been quite useful to the Green Party, who have managed to get a small number of MEPs elected. For the Lib Dems, who have under-performed in these elections in spite of having candidates who really want to be MEPs, they have conferred a measure of establishment respectability, as they have managed to get somebody elected in most of the regional constituencies. Until 2014 that is, when they lost all but one of them – and the shock of that disaster was massive to party’s leaders, still in denial as to how low its fortunes had sunk.
Unfortunately the relatively strong performance of these smaller parties (as well as the racist BNP who got two MEPs elected in on election) has fostered the illusion that small parties can do well, and a profusion of them enter the fray. But the Labour minister Jack Straw, who devised the electoral system, and was no fan of proportional representation, made sure that things weren’t that simple. He divided the country into constituencies with a maximum of 10 MEPs and a minimum of three. That meant that a party generally needs to get 10%, or potentially much more, in a particular region, to get somebody elected. and they need more than 20% to really make a real impact. And without preferential voting (except in Northern Ireland) if your party doesn’t make the threshold your vote is wasted. A profusion of small parties can, paradoxically, make life easier for the bigger ones. This was shown last time in the North East of England, when Labour bagged two out of the three available seats with under 40% of the vote.
This will make the election very messy. The two main parties have struggled for years at the Euros, where their usual strategy of bullying electors for fear of the other lot has little traction. The Conservatives are in a desperate position. The politics of Brexit has put the party in a state of civil war, and its leader is a lame duck. Its members and donors don’t believe in the election, and it is hard to understand what message they will campaign under. Their poll ratings are in free fall; they could end up taking less than 20% of the vote and joining the shrapnel of minor parties. Labour are much stronger, but the leadership studiously sits on the fence as concerns Brexit, and that will weaken them. They have no good reason to change that strategy for now, as it seems to be working. If voters are anxious to show their views on Brexit, then it will leak votes in both directions. A lot of its traditional supporters will not vote. Nevertheless the party could do relatively well if it can hold on to enough of the vote to stay out of the shrapnel zone.
On the Brexit side of the other parties there are two main runners. Ukip is still in business with a recognisable brand, and Mr Farage has set up a breakaway: the Brexit Party. The latter is brand new, and has only just completed its registration. Many politicos had assumed that its lack of brand recognition in an apathetic electorate would be a fatal weakness, and it and Ukip would badly split the Brexitvote. But recent polls show that the Brexit Party is doing very well – even leading in some – which goes to show just how powerful the “populist” parties and their social media connections are. Just because voters are apathetic over the various mainstream parties doesn’t mean the are apathetic about Mr Farage’s doings. The new party is likely to be tripped up by the now highly treacherous regulatory regime, given the happy-go-lucky culture such parties live by, but that is not likely to emerge until long after the election is over, provided they manage to get candidates nominated. Ukip, whose affairs have descended into farce, are likely to be buried among the shrapnel. The Brexit Party, on the other hand, could be one of the beneficiaries of the splintered vote.
The three main Remain parties, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the new Change UK (formerly known as The Independent Group or TIG) on the other hand are courting disaster exactly because they are splintering the vote. Combined they could take as much as 25% of the vote – enough to do very decently. Split three ways they could end up with just one or two seats apiece. Under the country’s increasingly bureaucratic electoral regulations running a joint list in the time available to organise it was always going to be impossible, and it would have left the joint parties hobbled by expense limits. The Greens and Change UK claim that the proportional system makes a joint ticket unnecessary, and the Lib Dems claim that their attempts to organise a joint campaign were rebuffed. All three are surely being disingenuous. In any case, if they elect MEPs they will stand for different things – which might count if they succeed in stopping Brexit and serving their full terms. The election isn’t actually about Brexit after all – it’s about playing a role in the EU’s governance.
Meanwhile the three parties will be locked in a fierce battle with each other, and for attention within an apathetic electorate. The Greens have a strong brand, and may draw some votes from disillusioned Labour supporters from the left. The high profile climate change protests in London could help it too – though they are annoying a lot of people, these aren’t the ones who were ever likely to vote for them. But the strong brand is also a limiting factor which puts people off as well as attracting them – it is hard to see the party making it into the big time. It is hard to know what to make of Change UK. They have managed to get their new party registered in time, but their proposed logo was rejected. Their appeal is vague – but they may have some generous donors behind them, and they have a strong profile in mainstream media. They might be able to do something with this and it would be very foolish to write them off.
And the Lib Dems? Their (I should say our) brand is battered. But it has far more administrative strength and depth than the other two, and it could do well in local elections in early May, where its rivals have very little presence. It hopes to become the standard bearer for angry Remain voters. But it needs to push well beyond its usually polling range of 6-10% not to get caught in the shrapnel zone. This will be a big test for the party and its strategy of pitching itself as the hard Remain party.
For now it looks as if the election is the Brexit Party’s to lose, with maybe some consolation prizes for Labour. Whether this tells anything useful about the UK body politic is another matter, but it will provide a lot of entertainment for politicos.