Euro elections will be challenging for Remainers
A total of 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are being elected between May 23 to 26 throughout the European Union. Against all prior expectations, these elections will also be happening in the UK, and we will be sending our quota of 73 MEPs to Brussels. This election voting will take place under the d’Hondt system of proportional representation across 11 regions in the United Kingdom, and will be the oddest ever to occur in modern British political history.
Firstly (depending on Brexit developments) it is not certain whether MEPs elected will actually take their seats (or if they do, for how long they will sit). Secondly, according to recent polling, the majority of voters see the election as a vehicle to express their views on Brexit, with party manifestos and other issues reduced to peripheral importance. Thirdly, when the results come in, it is not clear how we should judge who ‘wins’ and ‘loses’ from the broad perspective of Brexit versus Remain. Will it be:
1. Simply which party comes first- and whether that is a pro-Brexit or Remain party?
2. The aggregate popular vote cast for clearly pro-Remain (ChUK +Lib Dem + Green + SNP + Plaid Cymru) and clearly pro-Brexit parties (Brexit Party + UKIP). Votes for Labour and Conservative parties will be much harder to interpret.
3. The number of MEPs elected for the above clearly pro-Remain and clearly pro-Brexit parties
There will be different views on which of these three metrics tell us the most about public opinion on Brexit. But in summary, current polling from surveys published in the last week suggests that Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party is likely to narrowly beat Labour to take first place, and poll around 27-30% of the vote.
In terms of vote share, the clear Brexit parties are likely to take 31-35% of the vote between them, whereas the clearly remain parties will manage around 27-32%. In terms of MEPs, by far the most comprehensive poll (of 5,412 voters with large regional samples) has been published by YouGov for the group Hope not Hate (Table 1). It contains the following MEP predictions. A second YouGov poll, published 2nd May (Figure 1) shows (at the time of writing) the latest predicted national shares of the vote:
Table 1: YouGov Prediction, published 28th April, based on fieldwork of 5,412 adults (23rd-26 April).
Figure 1: Latest YouGov poll, published 2nd May, based on fieldwork of 1,630 adults (29-30 April)
This current polling clearly makes depressing reading from the perspective of remain supporters. They also seem paradoxical. Polls are now showing clear movement in public opinion towards holding a second referendum and point towards a win for Remain if one were held. And yet a (hard) Brexit party is likely to take first place in the Euro Elections, hard Brexit parties may well outpoll clear Remain parties, and potentially win twice their numbers of MEPs.
Two factors explain this paradox. The first is the Brexit Party, which seems to have done a remarkable job in instantly unifying Brexit support under one banner. Farage’s new party has virtually swallowed UKIP’s support base whole, and also seems to be attracting a large proportion of Conservative voters, and some Labour. The Remain parties are by contrast extremely fractured outside of Scotland: ChUK, the Lib Dems, and the Greens are consistently polling very similar levels of support: levels which (inconveniently) may cause them to fall just short of winning MEPs in the stronger Leave-voting D’Hondt regions in the north and midlands, yet also narrowly fail to win multiple MEPs in stronger Remain-voting regions like London and the South East. While D’Hondt is a proportional system, its quirks do reward distribution of support and penalise excessive fracturing. With three roughly equal smaller parties carrying the Remain banner – and one large one carrying the Brexit banner – Remain parties are losing out.
The second reason for the paradox is that Conservative voters seem much readier to abandon their traditional party to take a stance on Brexit. Labour voters – most of whom are pro-remain – continue to be much more loyal to their party. This may be because they are satisfied with Labour’s strategically ambiguous stance on Brexit, or simply because they want their party – the official opposition – to reap the political benefits from the Conservative Government’s disarray. Likewise, it may be indicative that ChUK, the Lib Dems, and the Greens are not currently sufficiently attractive receptacles for remain supporting Labour voters to flock to.
How can Remain achieve a better result?
The single most transformative factor would be to convince the Labour Party to come out fully in favour of a second referendum and campaigning to remain in it. If Labour can be unambiguously counted as a pro-remain party, then claims made on the basis of the Euro election results will be utterly transformed. It would then become likely (although still not certain) that pro-remain parties could win the popular vote and win the most MEPs, even if the Brexit Party still comes first.
The second way pro-remain parties could do better would be by, as far as possible, avoiding the fracturing of votes according to their positions in various d’Hondt regions. You can read an explanation of the mathematics of the d’Hondt system here, but the important thing to note is that, in practice, it creates quite different psephological situations in regions according to their size. For example, in the North East with only three MEPs, it is almost impossible for smaller challenger parties to get any seats at all. Thus, their voters might as well vote tactically for one of the two frontrunners.
By contrast, the South East elects ten MEPs, meaning that the final two or three slots will often come down to a tight toss-up between big parties who have had their vote shares divided by two or even three, and small parties yet to receive an MEP at all. In that case, where three small parties all roughly aligned, it makes most sense for supporters of the weakest of the three to vote for the other two to give them the best chance.
I have used available opinion polling data from each region to produce a rough guide on how remain supporters in each d’Hondt region could consider tactical voting to maximise MEPs won: this is available from me by request. Small margins in each region might well make the difference between an impressive haul of MEPs for remain parties and a very disappointing night.
Better regional polling would establish the dynamics of the Euro Elections more clearly, and the relative geographical strength of the three clear-Remain parties.
At the moment, data is still scant: but what there is can hardly be said to be promising for clear Remain parties because they are so split while the Brexiteers so united. However, if Labour were to take a more unequivocal line on the Brexit issue, and voting in the d’Hondt regions was better tactically optimised amongst clear Remain parties, a much more favourable result could still be achieved from a remain perspective.
Lifting turnout, as well as trying to boost the profile of the still relatively little-known Change UK party, would also be helpful.
Finally, it bears repeating that polling is at present exceptionally volatile, and the public is unusually politically engaged.
Everything remains to play for.
Dr. Luke Blaxill, a historian who specialises in British Politics, has, since gaining his PhD in 2012, held several prestigious fellowships and grants in Oxford, Cambridge and London. Hie email address is firstname.lastname@example.org