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Divided they fall. Alastair Meeks on the European elections

April 9th, 2019

The 2019 Euro elections – not a contest I thought was going to require a British perspective. Yet here we are, taking at least one more curtain call.

Last time Britain elected MEPs in the following numbers:

UKIP 24

Labour 20

Conservatives 19

Green 3

SNP 2

Lib Dems 1

Plaid Cymru 1

DUP 1

Sinn Fein 1

UUP 1

UKIP tallied 26.6% of the vote to take first place on a turnout of just under 36%.

It should be noted that these MEPs have shifted allegiance quite a lot in the intervening period.  Currently Britain’s MEPs are comprised as follows:

Labour 19

Conservative 18

UKIP 7 (one of whom is not part of UKIP’s EU grouping)

Brexit 7

Greens 3

SNP 2

Lib Dems 1

SDP 1

Plaid Cymru 1

DUP 1

Sinn Fein 1

UUP 1

Independents 10 (in at least four different independent groupings)

Vacant 1

No one could accuse these MEPs of bovine party loyalty.This fragmentation of support has implications for the Euro election results this time round. This requires, I’m afraid, a bit of technical detail.

MEPs are elected by multi-member constituencies under what is called the D’Hondt method.  This is often, but incorrectly, described as proportional representation. It is really a repeat first past the post system for parties. So in the North East England constituency last time round Labour got two out of three seats on just 36.5% of the vote. Not, I suggest, very proportional.

How can this happen?  The answer lies in the wasted votes. Let’s take a real live current example.  On Monday a Welsh opinion poll gave the following finding for the Euro elections:

Labour: 30%
Conservative: 16%
Plaid Cymru: 15%
UKIP: 11%
Brexit Party: 10%
Change UK: 8%
Liberal Democrats: 6%
Greens: 5%
Others: 1%

There are four seats at stake in Wales.  Labour would get two, the Conservatives would get one and Plaid Cymru would get one. Although the “others” mount up to 39% of the vote share, more than any individual party, all this shrapnel would all go unrepresented. The three bigger parties would be dealing with a deck of just 61% of the vote between them. The D’Hondt method does not work very well in an increasingly-fragmented political scene.

Note, if either UKIP or the Brexit party can establish itself as the headbangers’ party of choice, they would comfortably get a seat – the votes are there if they are not divided. Similarly, if the Lib Dems and Change UK team up, they will be a gnat’s whisker away from getting a seat even if the polls don’t move.

The effect is most marked in small multi-member constituencies.  South East England has ten MEPs at stake so a party would only need a maximum of 9% to ensure representation and very possibly rather less: the Lib Dems got one last time on 8% of the vote.  

If the Welsh poll were replicated in South East England (yes, I know, but bear with me), Labour would get three or four seats, the Conservatives would get two seats, Plaid would get one or two seats, UKIP would get one seat, Brexit would get one seat and Change would get one seat.  This looks more proportional. Even so, if UKIP and Brexit united and Change and the Lib Dems united, each grouping would be in with a real shout of an extra seat if the mood moved in their respective directions, as each grouping might reasonably hope.

What this means is that all the small pro and anti-Brexit parties have a hard decision to make.  Do they stick to their principles and in all likelihood see their cause suffer in the seat count? Or do they seek to unite under a broad front with the aim of winning more seats but at the expense of purity of principle?  I expect for now they’ll choose purity over electoral success.

This election, of course, looks set to be all about Brexit which in turn implies that both pro and anti-Brexit parties will do better than polling currently suggests (and if there is a boycott, it is likely to be by annoyed Conservative Leavers rather than those who want to send a message through one of the militant pro-Leave parties).  

But if you’re thinking about the seat count, be aware that the maths favours bigger parties more than you would expect from a proportional system, particularly those that are stronger in the smaller constituencies.This gives Labour a small but significant advantage. Unless the smaller parties get their act together, they could easily overperform in the seat count.

Alastair Meeks