Why the results of the European elections matter

June 16, 2009

justin_fisher- Justin Fisher is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Magna Carta Institute at Brunel University. The opinions expressed are his own. -

It’s fair to say that the results of the European elections in Britain were something of a shock. Of course, it was evident that Labour was going to do badly and the BNP’s success in winning its first European seats did not come entirely out of the blue. But the collapse of Labour’s vote exceeded what most had predicted, and the realisation that the BNP now has 2 of the UK’s 72 MEPs is more dramatic than the possibility that it might occur.

Now the dust has settled, however, it’s worth reflecting a little on what the results may tell us about the future for British politics. The first point is that performances in European elections have rarely been a solid predictor of subsequent general election performance – especially since the introduction of a proportional representation voting system in 1999 (the 1994 elections are perhaps the sole exception).

Take 1989, for example, when the new Liberal Democrat party came a distant fourth behind the Greens. In the subsequent general election, the Liberal Democrats performed reasonably well, whilst the Greens fell back. And, in 1999 and 2004, the Conservatives beat Labour into second place. Yet Labour won both subsequent elections comfortably.

European elections are very different from General Elections, then. First, despite their clear importance, voters do not take them nearly as seriously as national elections.

Second, the electoral system allows smaller parties to perform much better than they would under the system used for Westminster elections. Thirdly, and linked very much to the first two, there is a clear appeal for parties such as UKIP given that these elections are about the very things that they oppose. All in all, European elections are much more multi-party affairs than Westminster ones. And as a consequence, extrapolating clues about the next general election can be hazardous.

But these elections may matter more than previous ones for three reasons. First, the results confirm that that Britain has a very strong Euro-sceptic core amongst its electorate – nearly 27 percent of those who voted in Britain, cast their ballot for one of the several anti-European parties. And, of course, UKIP claimed second place in terms of vote share and joint second (with Labour) in terms of seats. Given the opportunity that European elections afford the voters, this Euro-sceptic support cannot simply be dismissed as protest votes.

Secondly, and notwithstanding the points above, the elections have nevertheless confirmed the problems that Labour faces. Labour’s poll ratings, of course, have been poor for some time, as has been the party’s performance in local elections. But the European elections are the only truly nationwide contests other than the General Elections. So whilst local elections and polls have suggested that Labour is in a bad way, these election results have certainly confirmed the depth of the party’s problems, including a collapse in Labour’s vote in core areas such as the North West, the North East and Wales.

The collapse wasn’t uniform – in London, for example, the fall was a relatively modest 3.5 percent – but all in all, a near 7 percent fall in Labour’s vote share and a 12 percent gap between them and the Conservatives does not bode well, given that the caveats of a second order election and the effects of proportional representation also apply to the other main parties.

Thirdly, the election of two MEPs from the BNP confirms the party’s growing electoral status. Of course, the BNP have elected representatives elsewhere at local government level as well as one member of the Greater London Assembly (GLA). But these are the first on the national stage. The support for the BNP is significantly lower than for far-right parties in other parts of Europe.

However, British politics has successfully resisted the electoral advance of such parties for many years, so the effect is still significant. And the consequences may be far-reaching. It may first harden resistance amongst the political elite against proportional representation. Somewhat surprisingly, the election of a BNP member of the GLA under a form of PR (the additional member system) did not create much of a stir. But this, combined with the European elections – held under closed list PR – reveals one of the apparent advantages of first-past-the post at Westminster – it helps exclude extremists.

So while the Prime Minister has indicated that there should be a review of the electoral system, early reports suggest that the Alternative Vote (AV) is preferred. AV is not a form of PR – it is majoritarian, requiring only that the winner of a constituency secures more that 50 percent of preferences (it is very similar to the system used to elect the London Mayor).

So the election of the two BNP MEPs may have sounded the death knell for PR at Westminster for the time being. After all, who wants to argue for a system that could more readily see the election of BNP MPs?

The other implication of the BNP’s success may, paradoxically, help Labour. The BNP’s electoral successes came in Labour’s heartlands and have provided a huge wake-up call. Labour supporters and waverers might be less concerned if voters switched to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens through a desire to protest against the government. But voting BNP is a wholly different proposition.

So, the alarm with which the BNP success was greeted could well have a galvanizing effect on those instinctively closer to Labour. Coupled with the distinct possibility of the Conservatives winning the next General Election, we may just see Labour’s vote improved through a desire to avoid the alternative, since despite the clear importance of the EU, it remains the case that General Elections are the ones where the stakes are highest.

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