Another meaningful vote: how important is the European Parliament election?

Written by Jenni Davidson on 22 April 2019 in Inside Politics

As the UK looks set to take part in European Parliament elections one more time, interest in the result is greater than ever before

The six Scottish MEPs elected at the 2014 European Parliament election - Image credit: Alamy

After all the strongly worded intentions about leaving the EU before the European Parliament elections, which neither the UK Government nor the EU wanted Britain to take part in, it now looks likely we will be voting for MEPs again in May unless – and it is a big unless – MPs can agree a deal before then, leaving Labour, in particular, with a difficult choice as to how it positions itself.

Ironically, since we are leaving, there has probably never been such interest in a European Parliament election at any point in the past.

It may turn out to be both the most and least meaningful European election.

Least, because, according to the current timetable, MEPs elected at this election will only sit for four months, from 2 July to 31 October, with a break in August, when the European Parliament is in recess.

On a practical level, what it will do is mostly inconvenience other member states.

For a start, Brexit is expected to have an impact on the groupings within the parliament.

British MEPs currently make up a significant proportion of two of the right-wing groups: Conservative MEPs make up more than a quarter of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, while UKIP and ex-UKIP MEPs form nearly half of the Freedom and Direct Democracy Group.

Depending on the results of the results of the election, this could affect the viability of those groups.

The UK’s failure to leave also delays an increase in representation for some other member states that are currently underrepresented – the intention had been to redistribute 27 of the 73 seats no longer being taken up by the UK to 14 other countries, including France, Italy, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands.

Presumably, this will mean an inconvenient second election in a number of countries whenever the UK does finally leave.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, all eyes will be on the results, not because many people actually care who their MEPs are, or indeed know what happens in the European Parliament, but because the results of this will be seen as a proxy for the country’s views of Brexit and a predictor of results in any forthcoming general election.

And this is how parties will be treating it as they now get into campaign mode and, in some cases, launch for the first time.

Following disagreements with UKIP, Nigel Farage launched his new Brexit Party on 12 April, which he said would have the same policies as UKIP, the difference being not one of policy but of personnel.

Farage had objected to UKIP working with individuals from the far right such as Tommy Robinson and Carl Benjamin and its perceived Islamophobia.

He promised that the new party would be “deeply intolerant of all intolerance”.

The Brexit Party has yet to provide any polices other than leaving the EU, but we should not underestimate the personal support Farage can garner, having led UKIP to victory at the last European election in 2014, with the party gaining the most MEPs across the UK.

Several UKIP MEPs have already moved across to the Brexit Party. And fear of Farage could influence other parties’ policies going into the election, as well as Brexit proceedings more generally, and the desire to get a deal before that happens.

The European Parliament’s Brexit representative, Guy Verhofstadt, joked: “So really, I never thought I should say that in my life in this parliament, but maybe the only thing that can save us is Nigel Farage now.

“Why? As you will hear today, he’s already campaigning, he’s already rallying with a new party, the Brexit Party, catching up with the Conservatives in the polls.

“And the old parties, Labour and the Conservatives, risk to [be] wiped out during the European election, so my advice … is that if they are not stupid, both parties, they make a cross-party deal now. Immediately. In the coming days. To avoid this imminent disaster.”

Meanwhile, the alliance of ex-Labour and Tory MPs formerly known as The Independent Group (TIG) has changed its name to Change UK – The Independent Group and registered officially as a political party, despite opposition from the established petitions website Change.org.

However, the group did have its proposed logo refused by the Electoral Commission, meaning there will be a blank space on the ballot paper where an image should be.

The party’s design, a black square with the acronym TIG and the hashtag #change was turned down as “likely to mislead voters” on the basis that the acronym was not “sufficiently well known” and because the commission could not assess whether material linked to a hashtag complied with legal tests.

Two former Conservative MEPs, Julie Girling and Richard Ashworth, have announced they are joining Change UK and hope to stand as candidates in the European elections and the Renew group has also agreed to work with the party on a joint list.

The newly fledged party also hopes to put forward a “substantial number of MEP candidates with backgrounds from outside of politics”, MP Chuka Umunna said.

The publicity surrounding the launch of the Brexit Party appears to have had a significant effect on support.

A UK-wide YouGov opinion poll on voting intention taken between 15-16 April puts the Brexit Party on 27 per cent, Labour on 22 per cent, the Tories on 15 per cent, with the Greens taking ten per cent of the vote, the Lib Dems on nine per cent and UKIP and Change UK getting seven and six per cent respectively, with the SNP and Plaid Cymru taking four per cent across the UK as a whole.

Another the following day put the Brexit Party slightly lower, on 23 per cent, and the Conservatives slightly higher, on 17 per cent with Labour still on 22 per cent.

This is a significant change since the first opinion poll carried out by YouGov on 10-11 April, which put the Brexit Party on 15 per cent.

The main loss appeared to be UKIP, whose support halved from 14 per cent to six per cent between the 11 and 17 April polls, although there were slight drops of one or two points, which YouGov said was within the margin of error, for the Conservatives, Labour, SNP/Plaid and Change UK and slight gains for the Lib Dems and the Greens.

An earlier poll for Opinium on 12 April predicted large gains for Labour, putting it on 29 per cent, with the Conservatives on 17 per cent, UKIP on 13 per cent, the Brexit Party on 13 per cent and the Lib Dems on 10 per cent.

A Hanbury poll on 7 April gave Labour enormous gains with 38 per cent of the vote, the Tories on 23 per cent, the Brexit Party on 10 per cent and UKIP on seven per cent. The trend suggests gains for the Brexit Party since its launch.

In Scotland, support for the SNP in the 15-16 April YouGov poll was at 35 per cent, Labour had 16 per cent, the Greens and Brexit Party were in joint third place with 13 per cent and the Tories trailed with 10 per cent.

The 17 April poll put the SNP on 42 per cent, with the Greens on 13, Labour on 11, Conservatives on 10 and the Brexit Party on nine per cent.

If this is reflected in the actual vote on the day in Scotland, this would give the SNP three seats and one each for Labour, the Greens and either the Brexit Party or the Conservatives.

Either way, there will certainly be a change of faces for Scotland in Europe. Labour MEP Catherine Stihler stood down in January 2019 after 20 years representing Scotland to take up a position as CEO of Open Knowledge International.

The SNP’s Ian Hudghton has also said he will not stand again in this election after 21 years as an MEP, although it is thought he will still continue in his role as SNP president, a position he has held since 2005.

In a letter, Hudghton said: “After a great deal of thought, I have decided that I do not wish my name to be included in the selection process for SNP candidates for the European parliamentary elections, possibly being held in May.

“During the past couple of years, with Brexit looming, the prospect of retirement from my MEP role has become an active consideration.

“I look forward to having more time available for family and home.”

If the opinion poll results are about right, the UK’s longest running MEP, David Martin, who was elected for Labour in 1984, could return to Brussels and Strasbourg.

He is likely to be joined by SNP MEP Alyn Smith and either former UKIP, now Brexit Party, MEP David Coburn or Conservative Nosheena Mobarik.

But of course, it’s early days and the results could yet change again in the next month as parties begin campaigning for real.

The Lib Dems, Labour and the Conservatives have already announced their candidate list, while SNP candidates have been chosen and they will be ranked by a ballot of party members, with the result to be announced at this weekend’s party conference.

But controversy has broken out about gender balance on the SNP list.

The party needs to select five other candidates in addition to Alyn Smith, three women and two men, but some have complained that the list will not be ‘zipped’, alternating male and female candidates, to ensure some sort of gender balance.

In contrast, the Lib Dems have placed a woman, party convener Sheila Richie in the top spot, the Greens have promised to do the same and Labour will operate a zipped list, topped by David Martin.

The Scottish Conservative list is also zipped, with current MEP Nosheena Mobarik at the top.

Referring to the SNP list, Scottish Labour MSP Pauline McNeill told The Herald: “This stinks of hypocrisy from Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.

“You cannot achieve greater representation of women in our politics through speeches at the UN alone; it takes leadership and action at home.

“That’s why it is so disappointing that the First Minister stayed silent whilst her fellow party bosses decided to potentially make it so much harder for female members to become MEPs.”

But of course, all this may yet be for nothing, as all hinges, as ever, on Brexit.

If, as Verhofstadt said, the fear of Brexit Party gains can galvanise Conservative and Labour MPs to push towards a deal, we may yet be leaving before the election.

But at present, it looks like we’ll vote one more time on 23 May.

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