Politics and Policy

Polarisation and fragmentation: what to expect if the UK holds European elections

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Polarisation and fragmentation: what to expect if the UK holds European elections

At today’s European Council, the 27 other EU member states are highly likely to grant the UK another extension to the Article 50 process. If they do, UK participation in European Parliament elections on 23 May will become very likely. In an ideal world, these were not elections which Westminster, or indeed Brussels, wanted the UK to take part in. But given the value the EU places on its constitutional and legal order, there seems to be little alternative.

Open Europe has today published a new poll, conducted by Hanbury Strategy, on UK voting intention for European elections. These are early days – as we learned in the 2017 election, much can change in the course of the campaign. Nevertheless, the results – illustrated below – are alarming reading for the Conservatives. Squeezed by smaller parties representing more hardline Leave or Remain positions, the governing party seems set for a landslide defeat, nearly 14 percentage points behind Labour.

Turnout is a crucial factor in any election, and the survey suggests it will be moderately low. Asked how likely they were to vote on a scale of one to ten, just 35% of respondents answered 10/10 (compared to 46% if there was a general election tomorrow). However, turnout in the last European elections was just 36%. Given that 60% of our respondents rated their likelihood of voting as 6/10 or above, one would expect a considerable increase in turnout from 2014. Moreover, turnout is predicted to be higher among Remain voters than Leave voters, as illustrated below.

The poll also suggests that European elections will reflect public polarisation over Brexit. With both Labour and the Conservatives confused and divided on the issue, voters look set to opt for the clarity provided by parties at either extreme of the Brexit spectrum. 20% of respondents opted for one of the four ‘hard Remain’ parties (the Liberal Democrats, Change UK/The Independent Group, the SNP, and the Greens); a further 18% backed one of the two ‘hard Brexit’ parties (Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, and his old party UKIP).

On voter intention alone, levels of support for the two new parties on either extreme appear modest, particularly in the case of Change UK. But both they and the Brexit Party have limited name recognition and campaigning infrastructure at this stage, and there is certainly room for both to grow. Hanbury’s survey showed that once voters were given more information on the two new parties, they were much more likely to support them. Tell Leave voters that the Brexit Party is led by Farage and favours No Deal, and 48% say they are “likely” or “very likely” to support them. 33% of Remain voters say the same of Change UK, once they are told that the party backs a second referendum. And this is before either party has benefitted from the additional profile boost they will receive once the campaign gets going. The European elections offer both Change UK and the Brexit Party the opportunity to gain a foothold in British politics; whether either, or both, can use this springboard to challenge the mainstream parties in the long term remains to be seen.

There have been fears that European elections held three years after the country voted to Leave will lead to a huge Eurosceptic backlash from voters. EU officials have previously expressed fear that the UK will send “73 Nigel Farages” to the European Parliament. However, predictions like this do not stand up to scrutiny when put into context with the status quo. The combined 18% for the Brexit Party and UKIP suggested by our poll sounds high, but it is far lower than the 27% UKIP managed in the last European elections in 2014. Even allowing for changes during the campaign, there is a distinct possibility that the UK will actually elect fewer hardline Eurosceptic MEPs after voting for Brexit than it did five years ago.

Ultimately, these are early days; the only poll that will truly count is the one on the night of 23 May. Nevertheless, our survey offers a useful indicator of the way the winds are blowing: towards further fragmentation, polarisation, and the potential emergence of new forces in British politics.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 85%
  • Interesting points: 90%
  • Agree with arguments: 75%

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