European Parliament election: An election that wasn’t meant to happen in U.K.


With Brexit getting delayed, British citizens will vote for EU Parliament on May 23

Just under three years since the Brexit referendum that irrevocably changed British politics, another election is set to take place later this month that could fundamentally impact the political landscape again.

On May 23, British citizens and European and Commonwealth citizens resident in the U.K. will vote to select 73 candidates for the European Parliament, who will take up their seats in July for a five-year term.

It is a unique election in many ways: even as late as April, this was the election that was never meant to happen in the U.K., and some continue to hope that the MEPs elected may never have to take up their seats. Even after the delay of Brexit till October 31 and after repeated failures by the U.K. government to get the necessary parliamentary backing, some retain the distant hope that Britain could still leave before the end of June.

Indeed, the Conservative Party has been running a particularly understated campaign, with voters across many parts of the country reporting that they had received no flyers at all from the party. Some leaflets sent out by the party were lambasted by some of its own MPs because they asked local MPs to support Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Priti Patel, the former Cabinet Minister, who is critical of the withdrawal agreement as it stands, labelled the campaign “desperate” and “appalling” and an attempt to undermine Ms. May’s critics.

Enthusiasm in Britain for European parliamentary elections has traditionally not been high: in 2014, turnout in the U.K. was just 36%. However, with public strength of feeling on Brexit high, it could be far higher this time round — around 49% of respondents to a YouGov poll earlier this month said they were certain to vote, with only 13% adamant that they would not. However, it has not been good news for Britain’s main political parties, for whom recent local elections results have already sent a grim warning of public discontent. Both the Conservative and Labour Party faced heavy losses in the May 2 elections in England and Northern Ireland, as smaller parties, including the Greens and Liberal Democrats, made gains, while the U.K. Independence Party (though suffering net losses overall) made some gains in areas that had voted heavily to leave.

A poll conducted by Opinium on behalf of The Observer newspaper this past weekend led to a new wave of panic among Britain’s main political parties as the Brexit Party — founded by former U.K. Independence Party head Nigel Farage — looked set to be the most popular party, with 34% support, followed by Labour on 21%, the Liberal Democrats on 12% and the Conservatives on 11%. Change U.K., a new political party set up by former Labour and Conservative MPs which is campaigning to remain in the EU and for a second referendum, has so far failed to make the headway it had hoped, commanding just 4% support, putting it neck and neck with UKIP

“The first and most obvious takeaway is that the Brexit party will do pretty will in terms of seats but the ‘Remain’ parties may do well in terms of vote share,” says Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe. He argues that the splintered nature of the ‘Remain’ parties — Change U.K., the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Scottish National Party — could enhance their ability to reach a diverse range of supporters. “By contrast where does a supporter of Brexit who doesn’t like Nigel Farage go?,” he asks, adding a warning that while the ‘Remain’ parties could do well in terms of share, the splintered nature of the vote could hit the number of seats gained (because of threshold that parties must cross).

The elections — beyond their impact on the functioning of the EU and its legislature — are already having significant impact domestically, and the likely poor performance of the Conservative Party is adding pressure on Ms. May to step down. Last week, Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the influential Conservative backbench 1922 committee, told the BBC that he expected the Prime Minister to set a date for her departure this week. Ms. May, while pledging to step down ahead of the next phase of Brexit negotiations, is yet to mention a date.

Expectations from the election have also piled pressure on the Labour Party around its stance on Brexit, its ongoing talks with the government and whether it should demand a public confirmatory vote no matter what the deal agreed with the government is. Some within the party believe that should the government concede to some of its key demands — particularly around remaining in a customs union with the EU — a confirmatory vote or a second referendum would not be necessary. Others are adamant that such a vote must be the feature of any deal. In an interview with The Guardian, Labour’s Shadow Minister on Brexit Keir Starmer insisted that any deal had to include a confirmatory vote, and urged those who were considering voting for ‘Remain’-supporting parties to support Labour, insisting it was the only party capable of delivering on a second referendum.

The bigger question will be how the EU parliamentary elections translate for national politics and future general elections. Mr. Menon is cautious about extrapolating, given the very specific nature of the vote. “We are aware that there is a de-alignment in politics. People are no longer committed to parties to the extent they were and are more willing to lend their votes to another party in specific circumstances… These elections are about Europe and we were not meant to be having them.”


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