Election Digest – Five things we learned from the UK’s European Elections
The results from last week’s European elections –elections which the UK was not supposed to take part in – are in. Having secured 29 seats, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party was the clear victor, albeit gains for the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and the SNP were also cause for celebration. The Labour and Conservative parties recorded dismal results, while Change UK failed to secure its anticipated electoral breakthrough. Analysis is ongoing about what these results really mean. Were these results an overwhelming sign that the UK should leave the EU whatever the cost? Or, does the combined support for parties such as the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Plaid and the SNP show the growing appetite for a second referendum?
The answer to these questions – I’m afraid – is not so clear cut, but there are a number of things we did learn from the results.
- The Brexit Party: The Clear Pro-Leave Winner
In terms of votes cast and seats won, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party secured an overwhelming electoral victory. Taking votes from both Labour and the Conservatives, the newly formed Brexit Party won almost 32% of the vote, several points ahead of the peak 27.5% won by UKIP in 2014.
Save London, the Brexit Party topped polls in every English region. In Wales, the party came first in 19 of the 22 council areas, while in Scotland it managed to secure one MEP, coming second ahead of the Tories, Greens, Liberal Democrats and Labour. The results may have been lower than some had predicted, but the success of the Brexit Party remains considerable – not least given its margin of victory over the other major parties.
- The Liberal Democrats: The Clear Pro-Remain Winner
The Lib Dems secured an astonishing finish in second place, winning 16 seats, a total of 15 more than in 2014. With a more than 13% increase in its share of the vote, taking the party’s total share of the vote to 20.3%, the Lib Dems outperformed poll predictions which saw the party hovering around the 15-16% mark.
Winning a total of three seats, London proved to be the Lib Dems biggest victory. Except for Wales and the North-East, the Lib Dems won seats in all other constituencies, no mean feat given the party’s share of the vote in 2014 or even number of MPs in UK general election constituencies. With a clear pro-remain and pro-referendum platform, the party became a natural home for disenchanted and confused Labour and pro-remain supporters.
- The Tory Story
It was not a good night for outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party, which was severely punished for the ongoing fiasco at Westminster over Brexit. Winning only 4 seats (a total loss of 15) on only 9% of the vote, the Conservatives did much worse than predicted, pushed into fifth place behind Labour and the Greens. This is an historically awful result for the Conservatives.
It is clear – as many Conservative MPs advocated yesterday – that the party is in need of new leadership, but the direction of its Brexit policy continues to be up for debate. This is evident in the ongoing debate about who should replace Mrs May; no fewer than ten candidates have now thrown their names in the ring with a number of diverging opinions ranging from Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit no deal platform to Rory Stewart’s pro-remain soft Brexit tendencies. Much like Theresa May, the next Tory leader (and prime minister) will inherit the poisoned chalice of Brexit. Only time will tell whether the new leader is able to do what Mrs May failed: secure the UK’s exit from the EU while uniting what has become a deeply divided party.
- Labour’s Ambiguity
Labour fared slightly better than the Conservatives, coming in third behind the Lib Dems with 10 MEPs on circa 14% of the vote. This was down just over 10% on the party’s 2014 election result and well short of the Corbyn surge in the 2017 general election.
Labour’s ambiguity on Brexit proved to be the party’s downfall. The Brexit Party thrashed Labour in the North-East while in Scotland and Wales, Labour recorded historically humiliating results (see below). The inability of the party to make mileage on the internal tensions within the Conservative Party once again spotlights Labour’s own internal divisions. There is immediate pressure for Labour to come out more vigorously in favour of a second referendum, but Corbyn’s support for this remains lukewarm. The party leader’s support for a general election remains steady, but given the European election results, and continued confusion over Labour’s Brexit policy, many Labour parliamentarians – unsurprisingly – are unconvinced. Mr Corbyn may now have come out in favour of a second referendum but where this leaves the party in the ongoing Brexit debate remains to be seen.
- The Disunited Kingdom
Since the electoral triumph of the SNP in the 2015 General Election, it has become cliché to talk of the UK as a divided or disunited Kingdom. The results from last week’s EU election continue this line of argumentation. The SNP won almost 38% of the vote in Scotland, coming first in all of Scotland’s 32 constituencies and winning three of Scotland’s six seats. The SNP’s anti-Brexit platform clearly resonated with Scottish voters, but Euroscepticism is clearly not a uniquely English/Welsh phenomenon; the Brexit Party, after all, came second and won one seat. The increasing electoral support for the SNP does not tell us much about support among the Scottish electorate for independence. It is certain that the Scottish government – buoyed by this result – will become more vociferous in its calls for Indyref2, but support for independence remains around the 45% mark.
The biggest defeat in Scotland was for the Labour Party which was pushed into fifth place and returned no MEPs to the European Parliament (the party lost the UK’s longest serving MEP, David Martin, who had held his position since 1984). Much like in the rest of the UK, Scottish Labour seems to have been punished because of its lack of Brexit stance. In Wales, Labour managed to retain its seat but was pushed into third place behind the Brexit Party (which won two) and Plaid Cymru. This is a historic triumph for the latter which for the first time beat Labour in a Wales-wide election. One seat might not seem much, but might this be the impetus Plaid-leaning voters need to continue to vote for the party to replace Labour in the 2021 Welsh Assembly election? Given the sea change Scottish politics has experienced in recent years, it might just be.
In Northern Ireland, both the DUP and Sinn Fein retained their previous seats. The biggest surprise, however, was the increasing support for the cross-community Alliance Party which beat the UUP to take the final Northern Irish seat. The traditional unionist-nationalist cleavage is still present in Northern Irish politics, but the election of Naomi Long for Alliance underlines the growing prevalence of the leave-remain divide. For the first time, all three seats have been won by female candidates, two of whom backed a remain ticket. This may prove crucial in the ongoing debate about the Irish border backstop, potentially drowning out the DUP’s message at home, Westminster and now Brussels.
Across the UK the leave-remain cleavage has become further entrenched in the state’s politics. Hitherto, Brexit has been a tale of disruption and transformation with serious ramifications for the UK’s largest political parties and the future direction of the country itself. The decision to leave the EU underlines that the UK (and of course, the EU) will never be the same again, but much like the last three years, the politics of Brexit remains deeply uncertain.
Paul Anderson is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church.