A first reaction on the results of the European Elections in the UK

The electoral system 

The UK electoral system for the European election was the D’Hondt system of PR which traditionally rewards the party receiving the highest vote disproportionately and this has again become the case with the Brexit Party only receiving 33% of the vote but almost 50% of the seats. This also works against the smaller parties, in this case both Labour and the Greens. Also it has to be pointed out that this election was called at short notice as it had been expected that the UK would leave the EU on March 29th and there had been continuing uncertainty about the election taking place at all up until April. The other big issue which affected this election was the continuing scandal about the voting rights of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK. Many of them were deprived of their vote because of the incompetence of local government in securing the certificates which EU citizens needed to have to demonstrate that they were not voting in their original home countries. This led to great confusion as the local government was not prepared and many EU citizens found their names removed from the ballot when they reached polling stations. The 3 Million which represent EU citizens in the UK are taking legal action against the UK government as a result.

Political Background

Brexit has dominated UK politics for the last three years and with the resignation of the Prime Minister because of it the day following the election, it was always going to dominate this election. The Conservative Party was accused by those supporting Brexit of having betrayed the referendum result and the creation of the Brexit Party along lines similar to the Five Star Movement with no manifesto etc, and whose only position was to ensure a Brexit by October 31st was always going to pose a major threat to the Conservative Party. The Labour Party, with its policy of “Constructive Ambiguity” on Brexit believed that it could hold its support in both Leave and Remain areas but Labour was warned before the election that this carried severe danger and many Left activists tried to get the party to alter its position to a more anti-Brexit one and warned of the Far Right threat from the Brexit Party. However, this effort failed and the party maintained its previous line. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, both nations having voted against Brexit, the attention was on how well the Nationalists would do in Scotland and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.

Overview of the result

Voter turnouts in the UK have traditionally been some of the lowest in the EU. This time it was 37% which, although below the EU average, was a historically high level. This reflected the political concentration on Brexit and the UK’s relationship with the EU. UKIP (UK Independence Party) had 24 seats in 2014 and 26.6% of the vote. UKIP has now been superseded by the Brexit Party. In this election UKIP collapsed. The Labour Party in 2014 had 20 seats and 24.4% of the vote. This year it has only held 10 seats. Its fall in support is marked in Scotland where it went from 26% in 2014 to 10% now.

The Conservative Party had 19 seats in 2014 and 23.1% of the vote. This time it has only held 3 seats. The Green Party in 2014 had 3 seats and 6.9% of the vote. This time it has 7 seats. The Liberal Democrats (ALDE) had only 1 seat in 2014 and 6.6% of the vote. The Scottish National Party had 2.4% in 2014 and 2 seats. This time it has 3 seats and 38% of the vote in Scotland. Sinn Fein (GUE/NGL) had 1 seat and 1% of the vote in 2014. The DUP had 1 seat in 2014 and 0.8% of the vote. This year it has held its seat. The Ulster Unionist Party had 1 seat in 2014 and 0.5% of the vote. It has lost its seat this time. The Alliance Party in Northern Ireland had no seat in 2014 but now has 1 seat.

Special Features

Clearly the Far Right Brexit Party has done extremely well in this election. This is partly because of what has been happening with Brexit and the failure of the UK government to have a deal agreed.  The Brexit Party, while well regarded by Le Pen and having strong links with Bannon, may not join the Far Right group in the European Parliament. They are currently the largest single party in the European Parliament in terms of seats. Their agenda is Brexit achieved by October 31st and if not, they will stand in the general election. They will have a huge impact on the Conservative Party and its leadership vote as the Conservative Party haemmoraged voters to the Brexit Party including many Conservative activists. The clear division is between pro and anti Brexit parties. The pro Brexit parties are on 35% and the clear anti-Brexit parties on 41% with Labour and the Conservatives lying in the middle. The question is how many Labour voters were opposed to Brexit and how many Conservative voters supported it as their combined vote share was 22% which has now been defined as “don’t know”.

Results of the Left Parties

The only clear Left party standing in the UK elections was Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland which is in the GUE/NGL grouping. In 2014 they had 1 seat and now they have held this seat. However, the election in Northern Ireland was held in an atmosphere where the question of Brexit and its impact on the border with the Irish Republic was a dominating issue. Sinn Fein came first with 22.17% and the third seat this time went to the non sectarian Alliance Party who are opposed to hard Brexit. This is clearly a vote from both communities rejecting the politics of Brexit in Northern Ireland. In 2014 Sinn Fein received 25% of the vote so clearly there has been a small drop but compared to what is happening to Sinn Fein in the Irish Republic this is a small decrease.

The clear issue in this election was Brexit and this result is regarded by most psephologists as a draw, though I would argue that the anti-Brexit parties have a larger mandate. This is clearly going to play out in the next few months as both Labour and the Conservatives have to make a final decision on their position on this most crucial issue. It is also clear that many did not vote as it was unclear how long the mandate of any MEP would last. In terms of leading candidates, the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farrage, with his many media appearances has been a major factor. Candidates for the other parties did not have a major media profile and this has been a major internal criticism of Labour that they did not offer sufficient support and media attention to their candidates and only participated reluctantly in the campaign. This could become a major problem for Corbyn with many of his anti-Brexit and pro Europe young members criticising the party’s stance and calling for a special members conference where a new position on supporting a second confirmatory referendum can be decided.