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European Elections – the UK Perspective. Brexit and the Unsettling of the Two-Party System

European Elections – the UK Perspective. Brexit and the Unsettling of the Two-Party System

Edoardo Bressanelli (Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies)


If the British political situation could be summarised with a slogan, this would be “once upon a time: the Westminster system”. That is, a political system characterised by stable governments, strong and authoritative prime ministers, and two major parties dominating the electoral competition. The dramatic unfolding of Brexit, coupled with more long-term transformations in British society and political institutions, has deeply unsettled that “Westminster model” observed with admiration (and, at times, jealousy) in continental Europe.

Of course, the European elections on May 23rd were only designed to choose the 73 Members of the European Parliament for the UK. Such elections are classically described as ‘second-order elections’, and the UK has normally snubbed them. In addition, this election round should not have taken place, if only the exit of the UK from the EU had occurred – as it was originally scheduled – on March 29th.

The context of these EP elections was not, however, a normal one. Without even waiting for the official proclamation of the results, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation – albeit ‘postponed’ to June 7th – opening the race for a new leader of the conservative party, and therefore Prime Minister. Whoever will be in the job, s/he will inherit a withdrawal agreement deeply disliked by Parliament – and, indeed, voted down by the House of Commons three times already – and an exit date from the EU scheduled on October 31st. The new leader, not differently from Theresa May, or David Cameron, will need to engage again with the EU, and keep together a party – the conservative party – deeply in trouble when managing (or, rather, failing to manage) its internal contradictions on the EU issue.

In addition, in-between the two EP elections British citizens have been asked to vote four other times: in the two referendums on the independence of Scotland and Brexit (in September 2014 and June 2016, respectively) and in the two general elections of May 2015 and, unexpectedly, June 2017. These recurrent elections – counting both referendums and snap elections – is by itself surprising in a country classically renowned for its political stability. Even more surprising, if not completely unexpected, has been the alarm bell loudly ringing for the survival of the British two-party system.

The aggregate result of the two ‘pillars’ of the British party system did not reach 25% of the votes. If voters in the EP elections tend to punish the governing parties (after the ‘honeymoon’ period with the electorate) and the shift to a proportional electoral system allows for a more expressive vote than the first past the post used in the general elections, the sum of conservative and labour votes in the three former rounds of European elections failed to reach an absolute majority. Half of the voters had therefore chosen other parties beyond the conservative/labour ‘duopoly’. This time, instead, three out of four voters decided not to support the governing party or the official opposition.

Two-thirds of the voters – to be clear: of those who actually voted, because a 36.9% turnout, albeit not too low for this type of election and timidly rising compared to 2014, is far away from the participation levels recorded for the last general elections or the 2016 referendum – have cast their vote for one of the following three parties. On the one hand, the new vehicle by Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party, has received the 31.6% of the votes and will send 29 MEPs to Brussels. On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, representing mainly the Remainers, have secured a contingent of 16 and 7 MEPs, respectively. Another prominent result has been achieved by the Scottish nationalists, who got the 3.6% overall but, most significantly, 38% of the Scottish votes. This was their best ever result in the EP elections and another component of the anti-Brexit vote.

All in all, is it possible to interpret the EP elections as a clash between pro and anti-Brexit parties? And if so, who is the winner? Merging the results of the Brexit Party and the now barely surviving UKIP (whose support has migrated to Farage’s new party), their combined vote share is 34.9%. On the opposite hand of the spectrum, the sum of the votes of all parties explicitly opposing Brexit reaches 40.4% (incidentally, Change UK – formed by a split-off from the conservative and the labour parliamentary parties – did not get any seat and may soon collapse). Yet, as the post-election survey conducted by Lord Ashcroft reveals, about half of the voters made their choice because of Brexit, opting for a hard Brexit (and therefore Farage) or for a second referendum or revoking art. 50 (choosing the Lib Dems or the Greens). Some other factor is therefore behind the electoral choice of the remaining half of the voters. Adding the levels of abstentionism – or, rather, the higher turnout in pro-Remain areas – and the ‘ambiguity’ (to be kind) in the positions of the Conservative and the Labour party on Brexit, one-sided interpretations of the electoral results as a victory for any of the two Brexit sides would be a step too far.

If the uncertainty on Brexit carries on, have the EP elections been the last call for the two main parties, unable to find a political synthesis on Brexit and drifted apart by their internal divisions? As the late Peter Mair wrote in 2009, the stability of the British two-party system was already more apparent than real back then, and the shock of Brexit simply reveals how precarious the two-party system is. The first-past-the-post system used in the general elections has traditionally drained the support for third parties as votes concentrate on those candidates who stand the best chances to win the seat. In 2014 already, UKIP had topped the European polls with the 27% of the votes, it then sneaked into Parliament winning two by-elections, but despite a good result in the 2015 general elections it eventually gained only one seat in the House of Commons.

Yet, the performance of the two main parties has never been so catastrophic as in this round of EP elections and, if the issue of Brexit will not be sorted out, other parties and movements may soon take the lead. All polls on voting intentions conducted in the aftermath of the elections show that either the Brexit Party or the Liberal Democrats would now be the most-voted parties. As the political scientist Robert Ford has recently written, if voters believe that ‘other’ parties stand a chance to win in first-order elections – and not only in second-order elections like the local or the European elections – then everything becomes possible.

In any case, in such a volatile political context – in the electoral arena, in parliament and even in government – several political options remain fully on the table. What is much clearer, instead, is that the old Westminster model – stable, predictable, almost ‘boring’ – is no longer recognisable. What will come after it, however, is yet to be seen. But, as Theresa May knows all too well, what Brexit “means” also remains to be seen.


Edoardo Bressanelli is ‘Montalcini’ Assistant Professor at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa. He has recently edited the Special Section “Brexit two-years on: Where are we now?” (with G. Baldini and E. Massetti) for The Political Quarterly.

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