Here’s how to really measure Farage’s ‘success’

by Nick Kent | 16.05.2019

Many commentators are claiming Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has won the European Parliament elections before the polls have even opened. We need to apply some proper tests before judging its performance.

Several opinion polls have given the Brexit Party the highest share of the vote in next week’s European Parliament elections. Pro-Europeans should use the next seven days to campaign against Farage’s new party but also, once the dust has settled, use the tests below to measure the Brexit Party’s performance.

A note of caution about the opinion polls: given that the polls were wrong in the general elections of 2010, 2015 and 2017, and that the final polls in 2016 all predicted a Remain win, can we be sure current polls are accurate? And remember, past polls were wrong partly because of the difficulty of estimating the likelihood (see para 61) of voting. How do we know that the pollsters are not over-compensating for past errors by, for example, allowing for a higher turnout in Leave areas than might be the case?

Polling for the EP elections is complicated by the presence of nationalist and Northern Ireland parties, as well as by the emergence of new parties. It is not just that the pro-European vote is fragmented but that unless a poll is conducted on a very large scale, the sample for each European election region is just a few hundred people.

Turnout will be crucial to the results. The turnout in 2014 was just 35%. Current polling on the certainty of voting varies dramatically – 58% in Opinium’s survey compared to 49% in YouGov’s recent poll and ComRes even lower at 43%. That wide variation is one indication of why polling could be wrong.

So much for opinion polling, what about measuring the actual results? The most important tests will be: the Brexit Party’s share of the vote compared to UKIP in 2014; its number of MEPs; and where the Brexit Party get their vote from.

UKIP got 27% of the vote (four million votes) in 2014. Farage’s new party is polling around 28-34% today, so its performance is hardly a dramatic improvement on 2014. That result gave UKIP the largest number of MEPs, 24, with Labour second on 20 and the Tories third with 19.

The closeness of those MEP numbers in 2014 points to another factor; how will the d’Hondt system affect the results? It sounds like a bad exam question, and it is. The d’Hondt system, used in Great Britain to allocate seats (STV applies in Northern Ireland), is affected by the varying sizes of electoral regions. This favours the Brexit Party, as one large pro-Brexit grouping, as against the fragmented pro-European vote of several parties: Change UK, Green and Liberal Democrats, plus Plaid Cymru in Wales and the SNP in Scotland. Some Conservative and Labour pro-European voters will stick with their parties.

Finally, where will the Brexit Party have got their votes from? This is crucial because some Labour MPs oppose a People’s Vote, claiming that their party will be punished by Leave voters for supporting a new referendum. YouGov found only 12% of 2017 Labour voters now back the Brexit Party, fewer than the number switching to the Greens and the Lib Dems. Most Brexit Party supporters are former Tory voters.

Despite his dangerous arguments and history of making offensive comments, Farage is still the darling of the media. When the results come in on May 26, we need to judge his party’s performance in a hard-headed way and not be bamboozled by his brazen claims.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

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