11 April 2019

Why the unexpected European elections are so hard to predict

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As with Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition, nobody was expecting the European Elections to take place in Britain this May. The extension of Article 50 means that the British Government is now asking voters to elect British MEPS to sit in the 2019-24 European parliament, in an election which will take place 35 months after a majority voted to leave the European Union on June 23rd 2016. There are few clearer symbols of how the Brexit process has not gone to plan.

These would be the most unusual and hard-to-predict elections ever held in Britain. The Prime Minister will today say they can still be prevented by an outbreak of consensus on her deal, but the chances of such a breakthrough within days are becoming vanishingly small. There are many rival predictions about what might happen – but nobody can know for sure which will be proved right.

Will there be an unusually high level of participation – or a widespread boycott by voters who think the whole idea is a daft waste of time and money? An angry surge which sees Nigel Farage’s Brexit party sweep to a clear win, a breakthrough for parties further to the right, or a counter-mobilisation of pro-Remain voters, hoping to turn Brexit delayed into Brexit denied, with higher motivation to participate now on the pro-EU side of the argument?

Each of these dynamics may feature or combine to some extent. It may be unwise to rule out the usual apathetic response, common across both European and local elections, where a third of us vote and most people don’t bother, even in unusual times. Yet the highest European Elections turnout ever would not be difficult to achieve – mainly because that bar is pretty low. Turnout was 36% last time around. The rather modest all-time record, across eight contests, is the peak of 38.5% in 2004, with turnout having been a miserable 24% in 1999.

The one thing the European Elections can’t really do is to prove which side would win any future referendum, even if they feel very much like a trial run – or perhaps a pre-season ‘unfriendly’ for campaigners on both sides. The European Elections are a very poor proxy for a future referendum – because the voters who decided the last referendum, and who could tip the next one, are unlikely to take part, while hundreds of thousands of people ineligible to participate in a referendum will vote in the European Elections.

There were 15 million votes in the last European Elections compared to 31 million in the 2015 General Election that followed. But 34 million then voted in the 2016 referendum. That additional surge of 3 million unusual voters flipped the outcome, from a knife-edge 51% Remain preference among General Election voters to the 52% Leave majority among those who turned up in 2016. Some of those voters were casting their first vote for twenty years – but many did not return to the polls for the 2017 General Election.

Meanwhile, research by John Curtice has found that those who stayed at home in the 2016 referendum would have opted mainly for Remain if they had voted. Some of the 2016 non-voters did take part in the 2017 General Election: a higher proportion say they would vote if there was another referendum. Getting Remain-leaning non-voters to the polls could be decisive in a future referendum – but these irregular and unusual voters are much less likely to take part in the European elections first.

This could be a very polarising contest – partly because the stakes are lower. There is not the pressure that both sides face in a referendum to appeal to 50% of people. Large parties may be trying to secure at least a quarter of the vote, and smaller ones to strike a chord with 10-15% of people to get some MEPs elected. There is more pressure to appeal to a party’s core vote than to reach out – so this could have some significant impacts on the internal politics of how both the Conservatives and Labour approach Brexit during the campaign, and beyond it.

EU nationals are eligible to vote in the European elections. Just over 50% were registered in 2014, though there are no recorded turnout figures. Influencing who sits as MEPs could help campaigns like The 3 Million as they seek the ring-fencing of citizens’ rights in a No Deal scenario, supported at Westminster through the Costa Amendment – but it is another way in which this vote will be different from any future referendum. There are calls to change the franchise for any future referendum to include those who could not vote in 2016, but these seem unlikely to prevail. Most pro-Remain politicians and campaign groups believe that legitimacy would depend on reversing the result without changing the franchise in this way.

If the European Election campaign would be a poor guide to a future referendum, it may be even less of a guide to how the parties would do in a General Election. The European Elections in Britain have mostly been “outsider elections” with voters making very different choices than when they are electing a government. Governments do terribly and the two major parties together have scored under half of the votes in the last three European Elections. The structure of these elections makes them ideal opportunities for new and outsider parties: Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and Change UK, formerly TIG, will both hope for a strong showing in their first electoral test.

These elections also present challenges for those outside party politics, whose concern is about the impact on community tensions, both at a national and a local level. Mainstream politicians have been warning of an extremist breakthrough, often to strengthen their political arguments against holding the elections.

Political anger – switching votes or vowing never to back a party again – can have its place in democratic politics. Threats of violence should not. A tone of political civility towards opponents is valuable, but cannot be mandatory. Some boundaries, however, do matter. The escalation of language of “traitors” can heighten the atmosphere in which those unable to make the distinction between democratic argument and calls to violence may feel triggered to act.

These may be unusual and unexpected elections in which all rival views about what should happen on Brexit will be put with passion. We should expect all participants to uphold democratic norms – to campaign for their views strongly, while respecting their opponents voice too. Prejudice, extremism and threats of violence have no place in that democratic debate.

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Sunder Katwala is director of British Future.