Farage to the test

Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Articles, Progress | 0 comments

Farage to the test

This post originally appeared on Progress Online.

The 2014 European parliament elections have been among the most eagerly anticipated sets of European elections to take place in Britain – if one can use such superlatives about an election for which we can expect turnout to be 30-35 per cent. In 2009, barely one-third of people turned out to vote, down from 38 per cent in 2004. The results will be interesting in several ways: how firm is Labour’s vote? Will the Liberal Democrats be wiped out? Will a good Scottish National party result be a springboard to referendum success in September? But the biggest question is quite how well the United Kingdom Independence party is going to do. So, what can we expect?

It reflects considerable credit on the British polling industry that it managed to get the 2009 European election results pretty much right, given that they took place in a particularly volatile environment, turnout was low, the voters were restless and alienated and the Labour vote plunged well below 20 per cent, something which had previously looked impossible.

The 2014 polls are, of course, not guaranteed to be accurate, but it is a reasonable assumption that they will be. Most of them show Labour in the lead with support somewhere around the 30 per cent mark, Ukip second with support somewhere in the high 20s, and the Conservatives third in the low-to-mid-20s. A result like this is ‘priced in’ to expectations and would probably cause only the gentlest ripples in the general political environment. It is not impossible that differential turnout might lead to Ukip coming first, ahead of Labour. Two opinion polls published at the very end of April showed a clear Ukip lead, with around 36 per cent, and with Labour in the high 20s, but only if the figures were calculated using just the respondents who said they were absolutely certain to vote. The Conservatives have managed their expectations downwards so well that a ‘decent third’ on around 23 per cent would be seen as passable, and if they manage to come second they would be ecstatic. A share below 20 per cent would be much more worrying. If Labour’s share is above 30 per cent, that probably counts as ‘better than expected’ – no party has won more than 30 per cent since William Hague’s Tories in 1999, and Labour has not won a European election since 1994.

The likely poor Liberal Democrat result will be another severe blow to the party. It has had its representation on other elected bodies sliced in half since 2010 – it has lost members of the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and swaths of local councillors. The last large batch of Liberal Democrat councillors in London and the cities comes up for slaughter on 22 May. The party’s current 11 members of the European parliament will probably be destroyed; looking at the votes region by region the most likely outcome seems to be that the party will retain only two or three seats although a complete wipeout would be the result of an exclusively opinion poll-based calculation.

The British National party won two members of the European parliament in 2009, but the far-right party has been engaged in factional fighting (a common pursuit for it), and its Yorkshire and Humber MEP, Andrew Brons, has left the party. The collapse of its organisation and political support means that there is a near-universal expectation that the BNP will lose both its seats, as it richly deserves to do.

The party bearing the heaviest weight of expectations is Ukip. These European elections should be the high-water mark for Nigel Farage’s party, and it will be interesting to see where the tide reaches. Given the expectations, coming third and getting a vote share in the low 20s would be a deflating experience, despite being a decent increase since 2009. Ukip will be hoping to gain an MEP in every part of Great Britain. It is standing in Northern Ireland too, but is unlikely to win there – it creates a peculiar possibility that Ukip could win the United Kingdom vote and lose the Great Britain vote if the result is very close nationally.

Percentage vote in European parliament elections (Great Britain)

Screen Shot 2014-05-15 at 13.52.56










2014 poll 1: ICM European parliament voting intentions for Sunday Telegraph fieldwork 15-17 April 2014
2014 poll 2: ComRes European parliament voting intentions for ITN fieldwork 25-27 April 2014, certain to vote only

Ukip should have no trouble taking a seat in the north-east, where it is currently not represented, but it would be remarkable if it managed to gain a seat in Scotland given the party’s general weakness north of the border. Its most marginal current MEP is in Wales, but the latest polling shows it doing easily well enough to win there. The detailed results broken down by local authority should give an additional indication of where Ukip’s strength lies, and whether the pattern of its greatest support residing on the east coast of England is holding. Labour will need to watch the results to see whether Ukip is still surging as it did last year in several parliamentary marginals such as Great Yarmouth, Waveney and South Thanet. Farage will no doubt study the same numbers as he chooses where he might stand in the general election.

However, there are huge limitations on how much one can read into European election results because the electorate clearly regards them in a different and less serious light than other sorts of elections. Even before the rise of Ukip, European elections could be very misleading guides to the next general election, nationally and at a detailed level. The Liberal Democrats came fourth in many of their seats in the south- west in 1999. But this did not stop the party from retaining them with increased majorities in 2001.

One of the ironies of European elections is that, although many voters do not bother to turn out, or vote frivolously, the people elected are often among the most serious, hard-working and – dare one say it – dull politicians in Britain. The life of an MEP involves a great deal of looking at detail, working in committees, and not much public profile. Many British MEPs play an important part in the work of the European parliament. There are compensations, in terms of the restaurants of Brussels and Strasbourg, but it does involve a lot of work and little thanks if you do it properly (which most non-Ukip MEPs from Britain do). Labour in particular, as the only British party affiliated to either of the main groups in the European parliament, the Socialists and Democrats and the European People’s party, will play an important role in a parliament in which Socialist representation is set to rise.

There is, therefore, a difference between the role that Labour MEPs play as a member of one of the two big groups and the role played by members of the other parties. On a European level, the Conservatives’ European Conservatives and Reformists group is of a similar size to the groups to which the Greens and the Liberal Democrats belong. The European parliament is run by powersharing and committees, in which all groups willing to participate can exercise power and influence, and all individual MEPs can make a difference by being a rapporteur.

While the profile of the average MEP is low, they bring with them funds and organisational resources, and jobs for some party supporters who can be encouraged to seek elective office themselves in future. In a party’s weaker areas, an MEP can be a lifeline to organisation and campaigns – Richard Howitt has done sterling work for the Labour party across the east of England, and electing Clare Moody in the south-west should be one of Labour’s party-building priorities.

Seats won in European parliament elections (Great Britain)




































2014 projection
















*Includes extra seat awarded to west Midlands in 2011 under Lisbon Treaty
2014 projection 1 based on uniform national swing in line with ICM Sunday Telegraph poll 15-17 April 2014 and projection 2 based on ComRes ITN poll 25-27 April 2014

The European elections are particularly important for Ukip as a source of money and organisation. In the past it has not deployed its MEPs effectively enough, and the groups to which the party has belonged in successive European parliaments have been prone to splits and scandals: 45 per cent of the MEPs elected for Ukip in 2009 are no longer in the party. This might start to change in 2014, as more professional political operators will be elected, notably former Daily Express journalist Patrick O’Flynn, Daily Mail columnist and former Conservative candidate Janice Atkinson, and, probably, Eastleigh by-election candidate Diane James. The buffoonish sexism exemplified by former MEP Godfrey Bloom and expressed in the male-dominated delegations of 2004 and 2009 is on the way out, and the party’s opponents cannot expect it to be such an easy target in future. The professionalisation of Ukip may arguably be a more significant legacy of this election than the size of its vote.

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