Dr David Shiels is a Policy Analyst at Open Europe and also works on contemporary political history.
The prospect of participating in European Parliamentary elections was never going to be an attractive one for the Conservative Party. Having repeatedly promised that the UK would leave the EU by March 29, the Prime Minister herself has said that participating in such elections would be suboptimal. Wherever the blame lies for the Brexit delay, it will be hard for the party to campaign for votes in an election they said should not happen. Leaving Brexit aside, voters have traditionally used the European elections as an opportunity to punish the incumbent Government. In 2014, the Tories came third and, though UKIP is no longer the force it was then, there are new challenger parties which might tempt voters this time around.
A new poll opinion for Open Europe conducted by Hanbury Strategy suggests the Conservative Party has reason to be wary about participating in the European Parliament (EP) elections. Of those questioned, 23 per cent said they would vote Conservative compared with 37.8 per cent for Labour and 8.1 per cent for the Liberal Democrats. UKIP and the Greens polled 7.5 per cent and four per cent respectively. The SNP were on 4.1 per cent. As for the two newcomer parties, the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage polled 10.3 per cent and Change UK / The Independent Group polled 4.1 per cent. The polling only gives vote share for Great Britain. (The elections in Northern Ireland will be significant given the prominence the border has assumed in the Brexit debates).
These figures come with some health warnings. It is not yet certain that the UK will participate in the European Parliamentary elections, so voters may not yet be focussing on the question. Both main parties could lose out in an election campaign, but Labour could have something to gain. There could be a tactical advantage for Labour in prolonging the cross-party talks and putting the Tories through the ordeal of more elections.
There are, however, several other points worth drawing out from Open Europe’s polling which are important from the Conservative Party’s point of view. First of all, Tory voters seem to be less loyal to the party when it comes to the European elections. This is perhaps not surprising, given that one Conservative MP hinted that she would not be campaigning for the party in the elections if they took place. Of those who say they would vote Conservative at a general election, only 76.5 per cent said they would vote for the party in the European elections. This compares to 91.5 per cent of Labour voters in a general election who say they would also vote for the party in the European Parliamentary elections. Labour also seemed to be more strongly supported by Remain voters than the Conservatives were by Leave voters, since 30 per cent of Leavers questioned said they would back the Conservatives in the European elections, while 47.7 per cent of Remainers said they would back Labour.
However, when the question was put slightly differently, 23 per cent of Conservative voters in a general election said they would be “very likely” to vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party at the EP elections, compared to 14.7 per cent of Labour voters who said they would be “very likely” to support Change UK / The Independent Group, which has taken a strongly pro-Remain position.
Another important point to note is that Labour has a strong lead over the Conservatives in all age groups apart from those over 55. Indeed, the voting intention for the European elections show that the Conservatives are only marginally ahead of Labour in the 55-64 age category (24.1 per cent compared to 23.3 per cent) and it is only in the 65+ category that the party is significantly ahead (33.6 per cent compared to 19.7 per cent). It is also in these age categories that support for the Brexit Party is strongest, though Change UK and UKIP have more varied levels of support. These findings are consistent with the trend found by Onward’s recent report into generational voting patterns, which suggests that the divide between older and younger voters is greater than ever.
The big factor in any European Parliament election is turnout, which has been traditionally much lower in the UK than for General Elections. Here again the Conservatives may be at a slight disadvantage, since Remain voters seem more motivated to vote in the European elections: 37.8 per cent of Leave voters said they were 10/10 likely to vote, compared to 46.9 per cent of Remain voters. Older voters showed stronger views on the turnout question, with the highest percentage saying they were most likely to vote and also the highest percentage of those least likely to vote.
Overall, the picture for the Conservative Party looks worse in the European elections than it does for the general election. If they go ahead, these elections will offer voters a chance to register a protest against the incumbent Government and also send a strong signal about Brexit, whichever way they are inclined on the matter. The proportional system with a regional closed list benefits the challenger parties and gives them an opportunity to establish an electoral foothold in British politics.
On the other hand, there could be confusion on both the Remain and Leave side as the new parties compete for attention and send conflicting messages, resulting in greater fragmentation – and the regional list system could produce some quirky results. Change UK has an opportunity to take some of Labour’s Remain support, but may struggle with brand identity, establishing that it is an anti-Brexit party. As for the two main parties, the Conservatives stand at an obvious disadvantage going into the elections, but there are risks for Labour too. Labour has more to lose by having its divisions forced into the open, and clearly risks losing support of Remainers unless it delivers another referendum. The Conservatives’ pro-Brexit credentials will be challenged, while they could also lose support from Remainers. Squeezed on both sides, the party will need to find a message that is about delivering Brexit in a pragmatic and sensible way.