The 2019 European elections are odd in several ways. Any candidate standing in the UK who wins a place in the European Parliament may not take their seat for long. The country is only a reluctant participant in the vote and British MEPs will of course have to leave the parliament as soon as the UK leaves the EU.
And even though this has become a one-issue vote, the choice of parties is more kaleidoscopic than in any recent UK contest. The outcome may tell us more about the failings of the British party system than about the will of the people.
At the last EU elections in 2014, six parties had enough votes to win representation in mainland Britain. This year, it looks like as many as nine parties will have the support required to claim seats. This is the result of the fracturing of the minor parties alongside division within the major players. It also means that voters will have to vote carefully if their voice is to be heard.
Among Remainers and those hoping for another EU referendum, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Scottish and Welsh nationalists have been joined by Change UK. This is a new alternative party, born out of the formation of the Independent Group of MPs defecting from Labour and the Conservatives. It has the allure of celebrity candidates including journalists Gavin Esler and Rachel Johnson (sister of Boris). Former Conservative cabinet minister Stephen Dorrell is also standing as an MEP for the party.
Leave purists face a dilemma. They could support UKIP, the established brand for those ready to quit the EU without a deal, or the Brexit Party of Nigel Farage. The latter was of course originally a central figure in UKIP but now accuses his former colleagues of allowing themselves to be associated with racism. This contest between party label and personal appeal seems at present to be going Farage’s way, but UKIP increased its vote at the recent Newport West by-election and still likes to see itself as the true voice of Brexit.
This mitosis of the minor parties has, in turn, caused infighting and inertia within Labour and the Conservatives. Many of Theresa May’s councillors are reported to be enthusiasts of Farage and as many as 40% may vote for him in the European elections rather than their own party. This would be an unprecedented level of public mutiny among the elected officials of a British political party.
Meanwhile, the Labour leadership continues to vacillate about a second referendum and its attempts to convince May to break her red lines have so far failed. For parties to have a mandate, they must have a message - but neither major party does.
Some find this situation laughable but it should be more than an object of ridicule: it robs voters of their voice at the moment it is most needed.
A simplification of party functions in a democratic system might be that they provide voters with policies to choose between, people to represent them and the chance to participate by mobilising them. This relies on the parties having unity and distinctiveness.
In these elections, the main parties don’t have distinct platforms. And, in fact, neither are even united around their own platform. The Tory civil war is over the kind of Brexit the party wants; Labour’s is about whether it should support Brexit at all.
The minor parties don’t have enough candidates with the recognition, experience and support to act as a sizeable, stable force. Even UKIP has found that 21 of its 24 MEPs from 2014 will not stand for the party again.
The Conservatives are losing the will to mobilise voters, and Labour is losing the power. The minor parties – even in a proportional representation system – run the risk of splitting the vote of their constituency so far that it loses representation. Despite getting nearly 7% of the vote last time, for example, the Greens only scraped over the threshold required to win a seat in three of the UK’s 12 regions last time. The Liberal Democrats, with 6.6%, won only one of 73 UK seats.
The institutions of British politics – its government, parties and parliament – have failed miserably to find a solution to Brexit because visible public opinion was frozen in time on June 23 2016. A clear balance of preference at these elections – however futile they are for securing representation – could break that deadlock.
Voters need to pay close attention to which candidates are standing for their party, and which party of their view has the best chance. If that doesn’t happen – and public attention has not been a feature of EU elections in the past – the best that can be hoped for is a giant opinion poll which is at least as hard to interpret as the word “Leave” in a referendum.