The last time European elections were fought in the UK, Nigel Farage was buoyant. UKIP became the first party other than Labour and the Conservatives to top a national poll in a UK-wide election in 98 years. Farage proclaimed that “the UKIP fox is in the Westminster hen house”.
This time, Farage, as well as parties on the Remain wing of British politics, are promising to blow the whole house down. Interpretations of the results of these elections are likely to rest on the degree to which the bubble of two-party politics – perhaps the key political fact of the 2017 general election – has burst.
These elections are the only UK-wide political contests fought under a proportional system, and potentially the last for the foreseeable future. This is vital to understanding how they have worked in the past, and why they are important to British politics now.
Since they became proportional contests in 1999, European elections have always led to a small decline in support for the big two parties. These dips sustain themselves for a brief period, before the majority of voters drift back to their existing tribes. This time, these elections are seen as a tool and an opportunity to entrench a sharp decline already underway and due, in no small part, to the Brexit process.
Each party has their eyes on their own interests and, specifically, on the prospect of a further general election in 2019. This has coloured the behaviour of the Remain parties in particular. Electoral rules have made it difficult – although not impossible – to establish a genuine “Remain alliance”. Yet, the fact is, there were good reasons for pro-Remain parties to avoid any formal coalition. After all, when it comes to normal elections, they would be in competition.
Nor is it necessarily the case that remain-orientated parties will damage the cause if they work in competition against each other – despite what those who have criticised the absence of a Remain alliance have claimed.
While not necessarily pursuing the optimal strategy to win seats, by providing a slew of different anti-Brexit options, they could be maximising their chances of a high vote share. It is far from clear, for example, that a Lib Dem-Green-Change UK joint ticket would be more successful at attracting Conservative, Remain-inclined voters than these parties acting independently. And in an election whose significance lies as much in what it tells us about the state of opinion on Brexit as anything else, that matters.
Mapping the vote
These elections will be written up not just as an electoral test for party politics, but also as a proxy for a second referendum. The ability to test which areas of the country currently have the highest levels of relative enthusiasm – measured in turnout – will provide a useful indication of which voters would show up in another national poll on EU membership.
Significantly, five of the ten local counting areas which saw the biggest increase in turnout between the 2015 local elections and the 2016 referendum – Boston, South Holland, Mansfield, Fenland and Bolsover – were also in the top ten areas that voted most heavily for Leave. If, in these elections, the biggest jumps in voter turnout between 2014 and 2019 are in areas that voted disproportionately Remain, that would suggest the opposite effect: a relative enthusiasm among Remain voters. This is important, not least as the drift to Remain in opinion polling is largely predicated on voters who did not turn out in 2016.
The European election might serve as a warning shot to incumbent MPs. Success for the Brexit Party in leave-voting Labour marginal areas might prompt some soul searching as to whether backing the PM’s deal might be the lesser of two evils, should the alternative be losing a seat due to the impact of Farage. Higher than expected losses to insurgent Remain parties will have the opposite effect.
As always with these elections, expectation management will be key. This time, it won’t just be the political parties massaging the figures to claim voters have delivered a particular message – it will also be the groups campaigning on either side of the Brexit debate.
So there is much to play for, albeit that the actual point of the elections – sending MEPs to Brussels – might be somewhat lost from sight.
This article was published in partnership with The UK in a Changing Europe.