Elections have become increasingly difficult to predict in recent years, but it is still worth reflecting, at this time, upon the way in which Brexit-led political manoeuvres by political parties have changed the course of the European elections. The result looks set to overwhelmingly affirm the overall desire by the electorate to marginalise the two main parties at Westminster, for three main reasons.
The cross-party negotiations and the illusion of Brexit convergence
It is worth recalling the party-political environment which exists as the UK enters into the European elections. Although they ultimately came to naught, the two main parties spent much of the past fortnight locked in talks to find agreement, appearing to the electorate as if in a state of policy convergence. The Labour and Conservative parties therefore entered the race with an effective ‘no fighting’ clause; a deeply unpopular move in an election on which clear and divergent Brexit responses were demanded by voters.
Both parties have struggled to maintain their support during the Brexit impasse. Both Conservatives and Labour looked set to lose a majority of those who voted for them in the 2017 general election. The mainstream showcasing of Brexit policy convergence during the failed cross-party negotiations by the two main parties has some relevance.
From the outset, most voters were pessimistic about the May-Corbyn talks which sought to forge cross-party support for the Withdrawal Agreement in the House of Commons. So, for those who want a clean Brexit or alternatively who have sought a closer relationship, if not to remain in the EU, the second-order European elections presented an ideal opportunity to register protest, dissatisfaction or opposition via other smaller but hardline parties (Leave or Remain).
It is not merely coincidental then that in polling of vote intention carried out in early and mid-April, support for both parties shrank: for the Conservatives 23% down to 17%, and for Labour 38% to 22%. In any case, as a proportional contest, EU elections by their nature lead to a small decline in support for the big two parties. Labour fared much more favourably with polled voters than the governing Conservative party.
Labour’s position, though strongly distinct from Conservatives on both a ‘customs union’ and a conditional second referendum, appeared to the electorate as blurred at best, potentially conceding further ground by being locked in withdrawal negotiations during the EU election.
This appearance of faltering policy convergence created a background against which, it became obvious, divergent party responses would fare much better. It had already become clear the two mainstream parties were losing substantial votes, but to differing degrees, to the smaller radical parties.
A protracted failure to deliver a satisfactory withdrawal deal
The politicised environment which has been deepened by a protracted failure to have agreed and ratified a satisfactory withdrawal deal has made some partial contribution to the declining electoral prospects of the two main parties. Preceding the EU elections, only 7% viewed the government as having handled the negotiations well. In reality, 80% of Leave voters and 85% of Remain voters believed the government was handling Britain’s exit badly.
On the deal itself, the research showed a depleted confidence in Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal, with almost two-thirds (63%) saying that Britain had got a bad deal. Leavers and Remainers were almost equally as likely to think the deal was bad (66% and 64%, respectively). The deal itself was viewed as unpopular and mostly in a negative light.
The Brexit Party was a neat, pro-Brexit outfit, almost perfectly framed by the chaos flowing from Theresa May’s inability to pass a withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons. Arguing for the cleanest of Brexits – leaving without a deal and wholly opposing May’s deal, the party is now polling well ahead (37%), while the pro-EU Liberal Democrats moved into second place on 19%, then Labour on 13%, with Greens on 12% and the governing Conservatives reduced to 7% (fifth place) of the vote.
Importantly, the Liberal Democrats (with 11 MPs) had begun to significantly outpoll the governing Conservatives. In particular, those Conservatives who favoured a no deal Brexit were overwhelmingly planning to back the Brexit Party (80%).
The politics of Theresa May’s deal seemed perhaps more important the deal itself. For example, even amongst that small group of the polled public who saw accepting the current Brexit deal as the best outcome, more people still backed the Brexit Party (34%) rather than the Conservatives (26%).
How wide was the new political marketplace?
A newer and broader political marketplace for multi-party competition has dawned for the European election, enabling a range of alternatives for widely distributed Remain options (five choices) and condensed Brexit options (three choices). One key reason why the Brexit Party continued to poll well since its launch was the limited marketplace for the Brexit vote.
A pro-Brexit vote had become increasingly difficult to place with a Conservative party whose leadership appeared to fudge the Brexit process, and likewise with the now marginalised UKIP, and so the only real alternative was a heavy concentration of Conservative-Leave votes in the Brexit Party.
For Remainer votes, it was different: the voters were split between a wider and more open marketplace: voters could choose between a constructively ambiguous but mainstream Labour policy (with its conditional second referendum) or opt for hardened Remain-centric positions in Change UK, the Liberal Democrats, or Greens, or in Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP).
Understanding the marketplace dynamics of the Conservative-Leave voter has become essential for understanding the current dynamics and likely trajectory of the Brexit Party. That is because the vast majority of polled 2017 Conservative voters who voted Leave in 2016 planned to vote for the Brexit party in the EU elections (78%), with only 12% staying loyal – albeit Labour had also struggled to retain its Leave voters, with around half (47%) also now planning to vote for the Brexit Party.
Clearer and unambiguous statements by the ‘smaller’, radical parties have been central to the election. It was shown by YouGov research, only a week ahead of the EU elections, that the Brexit Party was the only party where a majority of respondents (59%) said that their policies were clear.
The broader background for the decline in the two main parties is also therefore, in some important part, due to Remain-distributed, Brexit-condensed marketplace considerations: the sudden advance of the new Brexit Party, the decline of UKIP, along with the subsequent but gradual advance of Liberal Democrats and Greens.
By Dr Jim McConalogue, an academic consultant with research interests in British politics, parliamentary studies and European integration. His current article on British constitutional resettlement after Brexit features in The British Journal of Politics & International Relations.