Putting Thursday into context – A look back at previous UK Euro elections
From Sunil Prasannan
Well, just a few months ago, it seemed certain that, with a scheduled 29th March 2019 date for Brexit, the UK was done with EU elections for good. But, it looks like that we are in the EU for at least a few months more, so here we are! On the other hand, we are a political betting site, so what’s wrong with a full-blown nation-wide poll in 2019? The recent Local Elections (given that many cities and council areas didn’t vote in them) were but an appetiser for the coming battle!
Recent EU elections have actually been a poor guide to the winning party’s fortunes at the subsequent general election. In their regally purple heyday, UKIP under their ex-leader Nigel Farage won the largest share of the vote and the most seats at the most recent EU election in 2014, but their vote halved at the GE the following year, winning only one MP. By contrast, the Tories under David Cameron won the previous 2009 EU election, whilst they were in opposition, and then went on to become largest party at the 2010 GE, and the larger party in the ensuing Con-LibDem coalition. And in 2014, the Tories came a poor third, behind UKIP and Labour, but then went on to win an outright majority at GE 2015. However, Labour were the first governing party to come third in a EU election, in 2009, trailing the Tories and UKIP on vote-share, but equalling UKIP on seats.
The EU has only had a directly elected parliament since 1979, the inaugural election occurring just a few weeks after Margaret Thatcher’s Tories triumphed at the GE that year. In the EU election, the Tories won a record 48% of the vote, and then went on to win the 1983 general election, and a similar feat was achieved at the 1984 EU election, albeit on a reduced 39% vote-share, but they still won the 1987 election. Then in 1989, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party obtained their first EU election victory, whilst in opposition, also on 39% vote-share, but fell below even their own expectations at the 1992 GE, losing to John Major’s Tories. Into the 1990s, with Labour still in opposition, but with Margaret Beckett as an interim leader in the wake of John Smith’s untimely death, they won the 1994 EU election, and then under Tony Blair’s leadership easily trounced Major’s Tories at GE1997.
But Labour to date have never won an EU election whilst in Government (unlike the Tories). In a rare moment of triumph for Major’s successor, William Hague, the Tories won the 1999 EU election, whilst in opposition, but in a near-repeat of 1997, lost heavily at the subsequent 2001 GE. 1999 was also the first year that proportional representation of the d’Hondt persuasion was used on mainland Great Britain. Two leaders on, under Michael Howard, the Tories also won the 2004 EU election, but then went on to lose to Tony Blair for the third GE in a row the following year.
So out of the eight EU elections we’ve had in the UK, the Tories have won five, two of those victories whilst in government, and three times whilst in opposition. Labour have won twice, both times in opposition, with UKIP winning the eighth, the first time ever for a party neither in government, nor the largest opposition party. Other fun facts include the Greens putting on their best show at an EU election in 1989, winning just under 15% of the vote (nearly double their 2014 score, for example), and on all eight occasions the LibDems scoring a lower vote-share than at each subsequent GE. Average UK turnout for Euro elections thus far is 33.8%, but there was a big blip in 1999, when turnout was only 24.0%, a record low for any EU member until 2009, when both Lithuania and Slovakia had lower participation (20.5% and 19.6% respectively).
As for 2019? Well, it seems from recent opinion polling that it’s nailed-on that Farage’s new Brexit Party will enable him to follow on from his victory leading his former party UKIP in 2014. It may well see the LibDems achieve their first ever runner’s up spot, as the electorate become ever more polarised. But it will be interesting to see how the big two (Labour and the Tories) will fare in Thursday’s battle, and all that augurs for future elections, and the future of their respective leaders.