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Analysis

EU elections offer real opportunity – if played well

by Luke Lythgoe | 11.04.2019

It’s official. Unless the prime minister rams a Brexit deal through Parliament in the next few weeks against the odds, the 2019 European Parliament elections are happening in the UK. The election of 73 MEPs is a great chance to make the positive case for the EU. But big wins for pro-Europeans depend on what voters and parties do between now and polls closing on May 23.

This is a Europe-wide democratic event. Each of the 28 EU member states will elect MEPs between May 23 and May 26. The UK has the joint-third highest number of MEPs alongside Italy – only Germany and France elect more. Straightaway it’s an example of how democracy works in the EU and how the UK has real influence.

For these elections, the franchise extends to any EU resident in the UK. As with general elections, Commonwealth citizens living here and British expats who have lived overseas for fewer than 15 years can also vote. The voting age is 18.

Getting to grips with the voting system

The vote is broken down into 12 regions and nations – 9 regions in England (North East, South West, London, etc.) plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each region elects a different number of MEPs depending on the size of the electorate there.

Voters are just asked to make one vote for their preferred party, rather than an individual candidate. Political parties put together lists of candidates for each region – with a maximum number of candidates as the number of MEPs being elected.

The winners are decided by a form of proportional representation known as the d’Hondt system – except in Northern Ireland where a single transferable vote is used. Under d’Hondt, each of the available seats is allocated to the most popular party over successive rounds, weighted to account for seats allocated in previous rounds. It’s worth reading this European Parliament explainer for a straightforward example.

One important consequence of the d’Hondt system is that any party with too few votes goes away empty handed, winning no MEPs in that region. The minimum number of votes to get an MEP in a region depends largely on how many are up for election. In the last elections in 2014, 8% secured an MEP in the South East where 10 MEPs were chosen, but 18% was needed to get one in the North East where only three were elected.

Pro-Europeans must plan their tactics

Many pro-Europeans are beginning to hope that rising public support for staying in the EU will translate into lots of pro-European MEPs. But this might not be the case. Under this voting system, the higher number of anti-Brexit parties could fragment the vote and see other parties walk away with all the MEPs.

There are various tactics that could mitigate this, although none will be easy to orchestrate. There could be pacts to produce joint lists in certain regions. Alternatively pro-European voters could engage in tactical voting, backing the party with the best chance of getting an MEP.

They could even do some “vote-swapping” – where, say, a Green supporter in the North East votes Lib Dem in return for a Lib Dem backer voting Green in the South East. This was done to some effect in the 2017 general election.

Fate of the Conservatives and Labour

The Tories look in a bad way for these elections. Local activists are refusing to campaign in a process they insist shouldn’t be happening. The party coffers are reportedly running low. Approval ratings have fallen during the recent political turmoil. And that isn’t going to get any better, with several cabinet ministers in open revolt against Theresa May’s Brexit policy.

For Labour, the picture is more mixed. Popular support is currently falling in step with the Conservatives, but could be turned around if the party’s position on a public vote at the end of the Brexit process changes. The overwhelming majority of Labour’s members and voters want one, even in seats in Labour’s post-industrial heartlands which voted Leave in 2016. The question is whether eurosceptics close to Jeremy Corbyn are ready to capitalise on this.

How fares the hard right?

The final piece of the jigsaw is the hard right. Last European elections UKIP came top, picking up 28% of the vote share and 24 seats nationwide. This time they are a diminished force, with The Times reporting that the party is struggling to find candidates in former strongholds.

UKIP are also up against their erstwhile leader Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party. This could lead to a splitting of the pro-Brexit vote, with the Conservatives also likely to be fighting for similar ground.

Turnout in pro-Europeans’ favour

One promising sign for pro-Europeans is the predicted turnout. A recent YouGov poll showed 55% of people who voted Remain in 2016 will definitely vote in these elections, compared to 40% of Leave voters. Meanwhile 20% of Brexiters say they definitely won’t  vote, compared to just 6% of pro-Europeans. Another poll by Hanbury, for pro-Brexit think tank Open Europe, produced figures in the same ballpark.

These elections are therefore an exciting proposition for pro-Europeans, especially with the political wind in our sails. But several factors remain unclear. Pro-EU parties and their supporters must be nimble if they are to capitalise on these votes and use them to push hard for a People’s Vote.

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This article has been corrected after publication: there are 12 voting regions in the UK, with 9 in England.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

8 Responses to “EU elections offer real opportunity – if played well”

  • Luke Lythgoe has done a valuable service here in pointing out that unlike STV the d’Hondt system does not provide for the votes of small parties (who on the main issue of remain or leave agree with each other) to be aggregated. D’Hondt merely broadens the representation of relatively popular parties. Frankly it will be utter madness for Lib Dems, Change UK and the Greens to put up separate and competing candidates. Unfortunately it is probably impractical for SNP to be included in any arrangements because of the implications of their policy of Scottish secession but the others MUST get together for at least this European parliamentary contest.

  • For enthusiastic Europhiles such as myself, voting for a Remain candidate is a no-brainer. Moreover, we do seem to have a very good chance, which is improving daily, of a People’s Vote on Remain or May’s current deal, whatever that may be.
    However, I am concerned about attracting the waverers….those hovering between Remain and taking the May Deal. Just offering Remaining is same old, same old. How do we go about impressing the benefits of the EU without overloading them with Eurobabble and how will it be better than when we were in the EU before (ie. now)?
    The EU was asked to keep out of the referendum, which they did. It would be good to know what they would have presented to defend their case for EU membership. Meanwhile, just what is the sales pitch that we can use to guarantee a swing away from the Dark Side and into the light?

  • I agree with George Brooke – the campaign to persuade people that EU membership has much to offer needs to begin now (it should have begun long ago) and it must include a push for reform and improvement within the EU as a whole. Stepping up action on climate change, separating retail banking from speculative international investment, more co-operation on security but no European army, getting rid of the ridiculous transfer of the entire parliamentary entourage between Brussels and Strasbourg etc etc. Running joint candidates under the banner of remain and reform must surely gain solid support.

  • It’s 12 electoral regions, not 13, but other than that, you’ve explained the tactical dilemma for Remain voters admirably.

  • I welcome any move to involve the public in the Brexit political deadlock, including involvement in the European Elections. However, I see the pro-European vote being split between Lib Dems, TIG group, Greens and Labour, which will play into the hands of pro Brexit forces, who could easily unite behind UKIP and Farage’s outfit.
    It’s vital that pro-European parties work together. In this, Labour’s position remains ambiguous. You have the likes of Alistair Campbell who still considers himself a Labour supporter, alongside very lukewarm EU supporters such as Corbyn.
    If this isn’t properly co-ordinated by pro-Europe parties, you can see a pro Brexit party getting lots of seats in the European Parliament, which will only aggravate feelings against the UK.

  • Reasons for remaining in the EU abound, from economic to psychological, especially for younger and future generations. g& .. One that is not often mentioned is that a strong and United Europe is in the UK’s interest as well as in Europe’s interest for the sake of security as well as mental outlook. Why security? I am a Russia specialist, and Putin’s a former KGB officer and dictator is to reconstitute the Soviet Union by annexing the Ukraine, Byelorussia, etc on the one hand, and fragment Western Europe and the US on the other. It is no accident that both the UK and US have become very internally polarized and so has white nationalist (so-called) populism fluorished. Significant funds to support the extreme right in UK and US have come from the same sources, Russian oligarchs and the billionaire Mercer family. With Western alliances fragmented, Russia becomes stronger.
    As for historical independence and Britons defending against Anglo Saxon warriors, it has been proven a myth. Actually Tintagel was the wealthy centre of very active trade in tin with Europe. The graves of people alive in 400-600 show no scars of battle, were farmers, and intermingled by marriage. There were no nation states, just Europeans getting on with life and prospering. Today we have nations that cooperate by association. Lets remain and improve our association with other Europeans.

  • The other key target must be to get EU27 residents in the UK to register to vote in the UK and then get them to go to the polling station on 23 May.

  • “Any EU resident in the UK” includes the entire UK population, of course. That’s a point that campaigners should not overlook. Talking about “EU residents”, “EU citizens” etc to mean non-British citizens of the EU leads to a “them and us” mentality which does not help make the remain argument.