We are going to have European Parliament elections after all – well, perhaps. Unless by 22 May Parliament has approved the withdrawal agreement (seemingly a tall order) the country will go to the polls on 23 May – even though the term of office of those elected may at most be no more than a few months.
Euro-elections have always struggled to secure the interest and attention of voters. Turnout in the UK has never topped 38% – and that was in a year (2004) when all that many voters had to do was pop their completed ballot paper in the post. Asking voters to elect MEPs who might never have to make the journey to Strasbourg hardly sounds like a recipe for a high turnout.
Meanwhile, the very idea of holding a euro-election is deeply unpopular among Leave voters. Two-thirds of them (according to Opinium) say that doing so would be ‘unacceptable’, a view with which only just over one in five (22%) of Remain supporters concur. This might translate into a particular reluctance on their part to turn out to vote (though the evidence in the polls as to whether this is likely to be the case is so far somewhat inconsistent).
On the other hand, thanks to Brexit many voters in Britain are unusually exercised about the EU. As many as two in five say they identify ‘very strongly’ as either a Remainer or a Leaver. Many of these voters at least might feel compelled to use their euro-election vote to express their support for, or opposition to Brexit, and how it has been handled. Doing so might be no more than a symbolic gesture, but if Brexit has still not been settled by polling day, many might feel that making such a gesture would be worthwhile.
Certainly, the parties will be very aware of the very particular challenges and opportunities which they face in a euro-election. For a start, past form indicates that voters are more willing to back smaller parties in a European Parliament election than they are in a general election.
Second, euro-elections also often see parties that are critical of the European Parliament perform relatively well: in the UK, this has been most apparent in the success of UKIP, whose support rose steadily from 7% in 1999, to 16% in 2004, 17% in 2009, and 27% in 2014. Indeed, last time around the party came first.
Meanwhile, any election held in the middle of a domestic parliamentary term can prove difficult for whichever party is in government. In 2014, Labour’s vote increased by seven points, compared to the drubbing it had received when it was still in power in 2009 (and presiding over the financial crash and MPs’ expenses scandal). Conversely, support for the Conservatives (down seven points) and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners (a fall of ten points) fell back heavily.
In short, euro-elections are occasions when voters are more willing to take a punt on a smaller party, to vent their dislike of how things are being run in Brussels, and to cast a protest vote against the government in Westminster. Even without the backdrop of the current Brexit impasse, a euro-election would be an ideal occasion for a new party with distinctive views about Europe to fight its first election.
It is, then, little surprise that the pro-Remain, pro-second referendum Change UK party formed by the recently-established Independent Group is proposing to put up candidates. Equally, a euro-election would always seem a relatively propitious occasion for a new anti-EU party to try its luck. In this instance, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party will be trying to take the position of Britain’s premier eurosceptic party away from UKIP.
These new parties will be encouraged by the fact that this particular election is to be held against the backdrop of a Conservative government that (so far, at least) not been able to deliver Brexit – a failure that has engendered further debate about the merits of leaving without a deal, and of holding a second referendum that might reverse the referendum result.
Conversely, it is little wonder that both the Conservatives and Labour – but especially the Conservatives – face the prospect of contesting the euro-election with some trepidation. Indeed, their fears already appear to be justified by initial polling of how people say they would vote in a euro-election.
So far, three such polls (by Hanbury Strategy, Opinium, and YouGov) have been undertaken across Britain a whole, while another was undertaken (by YouGov) in Wales. In each case the poll also asked people how they would vote in a domestic general election, and thus we can see the extent to which – at this admittedly early stage – voters seem inclined to vote differently in this euro-election from how they might behave in a Westminster contest.
In each poll, many fewer people said they would vote Conservative in the euro-election than indicated that they would do so in a general election: on average the recorded level of support for the party was as much as ten points lower. Labour, on the other hand, would appear to be less at risk of losing out in this way; though even so, on average the recorded level of support for the party in the euro-election was five points down on what it would be in a Westminster contest.
In contrast, it seems that between them at least, the eurosceptic parties could fare relatively well. To date, not all polls include the Brexit Party in their questions about voting intention for Westminster. However, what is clear is that the combined level of support recorded for the two eurosceptic parties is as much as 14 points higher than it would be in a Westminster election. At present this vote appears to be more or less evenly divided between the Brexit Party and UKIP.
As we might anticipate there is a clear connection between the relative reluctance of voters to vote Conservative in the euro-election and the strength of the support for eurosceptic parties in that election. Nearly a quarter of those who say they would vote Conservative in a general election are inclined to back one of the eurosceptic parties in the euro-elections.
Equally, among all those who voted Leave in the EU referendum, support for the Conservatives in the euro-election is as much as 18 points lower than in a general election, whereas the equivalent figure among those who backed Remain is just four points. It looks as though many Leave-inclined Conservative supporters seem set to use the euro-elections to register their disappointment at the government’s failure to deliver Brexit.
On the other side of the Brexit divide, however, it is less clear that smaller parties will necessarily outperform their current general election standing. Here the evidence is also somewhat incomplete because not all polls include Change UK as a possible option in a general election. Even so, the polls suggest that collectively the Liberal Democrats and Change UK may not do much better than they would in a general election.
Labour will hope that that continues to be the case as it tries to maintain its relative popularity among Remain supporters while also keeping its minority of Leave-inclined voters on board. However, nothing is certain in what promises to be a very different kind of election indeed.
By Professor Sir John Curtice, senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor at the University of Strathclyde.