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European Elections: A political earthquake which will not solve the Brexit saga

European Elections: A political earthquake which will not solve the Brexit saga

Gianfranco Baldini (University of Bologna) and Andrea Pareschi (St. Anna School)

Each European election is unique in their own way, and the election held a week ago in the United Kingdom had many reasons for being so. First, the election was not supposed to be held, until Theresa May had to ask for an extension on the approval of the Brexit deal. Second, given the cited extension, it is not clear how long the MEPs just elected will stay in office. Third, May’s anticipated resignation– announced the morning after the country had voted – is going to provide the key context in which the consequences of the vote will unfold over the next few weeks.

All this happened before the results were known. Our argument is that – despite the magnitude of the earthquake that shook the British party system – the Brexit saga remains unsolved, as all the uncertainties of the parliamentary procedure to approve the deal remain intact, if not exacerbated by the horrendous result of the conservatives. Here we focus on four main points:

  • How can we interpret the 37 percent turnout?
  • What can we say about the fate of the two main parties, now suddenly dropped in fifth (Conservative) and third position (Labour) respectively?
  • Where and how did they mostly lose votes?
  • Given the funambulist nature of Farage’s leadership, what can we make of his success for the next steps of the Brexit saga?

Context matters. Farage had already triumphed with UKIP in 2014, albeit with 27 percent, and in a situation where the two main parties still got a combined vote of almost 50 percent. Then, UKIP’s breakthrough was a key factor in the unfolding of the Brexit referendum, which attracted higher participation (72 percent) than any recent general election since 1992. Despite the slight differences in the two franchises, given the dominance of Brexit in the political debate over the last three years, one could have expected a higher response from British voters than 37 percent, especially from leavers allegedly feeling betrayed by the lack of implementation of Brexit. And yet, the turnout increased only marginally as compared to 2014 (36 percent).

Of course, all this is not meant to say that all is well and good. On the contrary, even for a country like the UK which is more used to the rollercoaster of the European vote (technically speaking: a higher volatility), a brand new party created just six weeks before the election gives a great shock to the system, and the capacity of the two main parties to react is now tested at an unprecedented level.

In fact, while these European elections should not be read as a proxy referendum – due to the low turnout, the composition of the electorates, and the rather ambiguous role of the Labour Party – what they may provide is an appraisal of the health condition of the main parties. In this respect, although Lord Ashcroft’s data only focuses on those 2016 Remainers and Leavers and those 2017 party voters that actually turned out to vote on May 23rd, voter preference flows offer valuable insight on how to interpret this election.

While the two parties have both struggled with Brexit, the nature of their predicament at different timepoints – including the aftermath of the referendum, May’s definition of Brexit, the build-up of the People’s Vote campaign, and the latest frantic months – has not been symmetrical. The data confirm some asymmetry. Only 21 percent of 2017 Tory voters who took part in the European election stuck with the party, while 53 percent followed Farage and 12 percent even chose the Lib Dems. The proportion of loyal 2017 Labour voters is higher at 38percent, but the party may face a more consequentially two-front drain: for instance, 13percent opted for the Brexit Party, 22 percent for the Lib Dems.

As to the vote choices of Remainers and Leavers – important in their own right in light of recent work probing their consolidation as autonomous political identities above and beyond party loyalties – such data also highlights polarization on the one hand and countervailing trends on the other one. Among 2016 Leavers who voted in May 2019, about two-thirds endorsed Farage’s new protest outlet, 9 percent voted for the Conservatives and 8 percent for Labour. In turn, 2017 Remainers preferred the Lib Dems (36 percent), then the Greens and Labour (19 percent), but 9 percent supported the Conservatives despite their pro-Brexit outlook.

In this respect, it is noteworthy that Farage’s Brexit Party reached 35 percent in 7 out of the 11 British regions and 30 percent in 9 of them, the only exceptions being London (18 percent) and Scotland (15 percent). The Lib Dems, topping the poll in London (27 percent), obtained 20 percent in the three Southern regions, faring slightly worse than 15 percent only in Scotland and Wales. So did the Greens, that did not reach double-digit support there, unlike in 8 of the 9 English regions. In fact, the SNP reaped rewards in Scotland (38 percent) over a fragmented unionist camp, while in Wales Plaid Cymru (15 percent) narrowly overcame Labour way behind the Brexit Party.

Corbyn’s Labour – which ultimately sees its share of votes and seats halved, after having been credited first place by all opinion polls at least until the birth of the Brexit Party – clings at least to second place in London (24 percent) and, narrowly so, in the Northern regions and the West Midlands, where it nevertheless leaks support and seats. The panorama does not look any better in historical strongholds such as Wales, where Labour (15 percent) undergoes its second-ever defeat (and a massive one) in a national election ever since 1922, and Scotland, where it fails to reach 10 percent or to (re)elect a single MEP.

As to the Conservatives, suffice it to say that their uniformly low vote share only reaches 10percent in four English areas – that is, the Midlands and the two regions of the South-East – the party’s best result being the 12 percent it achieves in Scotland. As a result, the party only sends to Brussels 4 MEPs out of the 73 (still) granted to the UK.

Of course, in order to properly flesh out the likely impact of the European election on the two main parties, a more fine-grained picture will have to be outlined, e.g. by taking into account the geography of the vote at the level of constituencies. In fact, beyond the broad strategies of the party leadership – one of which has already become vacant – such impact is going to have an indirect character, affecting the constraints and incentives faced by individual MPs and possibly, via this route, the political equilibria of a Parliament whose composition is otherwise unaffected.

The picture would not be complete without considering two further peculiarities of the British case, remarkable when set in comparative perspective. First, the UK is the only country in which the winning party is not represented in the national parliament. Given the state of the Brexit saga, this point is quite relevant. If half of the conservative voters have switched to the Brexit Party, how much pressure will Farage’s success in some constituencies put on MPs facing new indicative votes – including also, however, Labour representatives elected in the Northern heartlands – is a key point to monitor.

Second, as paradoxical as it might sound, a key consequence of this vote will become clear once a very tiny and un-representative section of the British electorate will have decided on the new prime minister. The 124,000 members of the Conservative party – almost 60 percent of whom are over 55-year old and mainly come from ABC social classes – will be the final judges on May’s successor. A leader who resigned before the results were known, will be replaced by a new leader who will still have to face the unenviable task of getting the parliament to agree on the way out.

One can be forgiven for thinking that this sounds like a miracle. In case the new conservative leader will not succeed, the fresh election might indicate the European earthquake as the further stepping-stone of a Europeanization (in terms at least of both fragmentation and volatility) of the party system, just at the time in which the government wanted to finally leave the EU.


Gianfranco Baldini is Associate Professor at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Bologna.

Andrea Pareschi is a Research Fellow at St. Anna School in Pisa, Italy.

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