The outcome of the European election in Britain was truly remarkable. Record after record was broken. The Conservatives secured their worst result ever. Labour suffered its biggest reverse since it first started fighting elections as a wholly independent party in 1918. The Liberal Democrats and the SNP enjoyed their highest share of the vote in any Euro-election, while the Greens’ performance was second only to their remarkable result in 1989 when they won 15% of the vote. There must surely be some important lessons to learn from such a dramatic outcome?
Indeed, there are – though only if the results are examined with care and circumspection. Alas, this sometimes seemed in rather short supply in the immediate wake of the declaration of the results as those on all sides of the Brexit debate attempted to argue that the results showed that most voters supported their outlook on Brexit. They could not, of course, possibly all be right.
Indeed, perhaps one question to address straight away is whether any such claims could conceivably be supported given that, as in previous European elections, most voters did not vote at all. While, at 36.7%, the turnout in Great Britain was a little higher than at most European elections (indeed it was second only to that in 2004 when turnout was boosted by holding the election in some regions using an all postal ballot), it still only registered the views of a minority. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that those who did vote were not entirely representative. The two-point increase in turnout on the last Euro-election in 2014 was far from uniform across the country. Rather, the higher the Remain vote in a council area in 2016, the more that turnout rose as compared with five year ago. As a result, the increase in turnout averaged as much as five points in those areas where more than 58% voted Remain, while it actually fell back a point on average in those areas where less than 38% supported Remain. Much the same pattern is also in evidence if the comparison is made with the 2009 Euro-election.
As a result, what had previously been no more than a four-point difference between the most pro-Remain and the least pro-Remain areas grew into as much as a ten-point difference. Meanwhile, polling undertaken by Lord Ashcroft on polling day and the day after suggests that the Remain side had been ahead in 2016 by 53% to 47% among those who voted in the Euro-elections, whereas, of course, only 48% backed Remain in the referendum itself. This, perhaps, tells us something about the strength of feeling about Brexit among those who voted Remain in particular, but serves as an initial warning about trying to use the results to argue that they showed that the balance of opinion about Brexit among voters has tilted in one direction or the other.
Not that this stopped people from trying. On the one hand, it was argued that the Brexit party’s success in coming a clear first (with 32% of the vote) demonstrated that the public were determined that the UK should leave the EU on October 31st come what may, deal or no deal. To that it was countered that whereas a total of 35% had voted for a party (that is, the Brexit Party or UKIP) that was willing to leave the EU without a deal, as many as 40% had supported one of the parties (the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists) that were campaigning for a second EU referendum – and thus it was clear that was the direction in which voters wished to go. Both arguments blithely ignored the fact that neither tally approached anything like 50%, and that there was more than one way of adding the Conservative (pro-Leave, anti-second referendum) and Labour (pro-Leave but not necessarily opposed to another ballot) tallies to these totals to argue either that most voters still back leaving the EU or that most would contemplate a second referendum.
Even leaving aside questions about differential turnout between Remain and Leave supporters, the difficulty with such arguments, of course, is that they assume that those who voted for a particular party were necessarily expressing support for that party’s stance on Brexit. In truth, many were. Just before the election, Number Cruncher Politics reported that as many as 49% said that they would be voting in order to express their view about Brexit, while Kantar published a similar finding in its pre-election poll. Equally, Lord Ashcroft’s post-polling day poll ascertained that around a half of voters (51%) gave as their principal reason for voting the way they did either that the party for which they voted had the best policy on Brexit or that they wanted to show their dissatisfaction with the UK government’s stance on Brexit.
However, a half is not everyone, and while some parties were drawing their support almost entirely from either Remainers or from Leavers, others were not. So far as the Eurosceptic parties are concerned, there is little doubt about the orientation of the vast bulk of their voters. Lord Ashcroft’s poll found that the Brexit Party enjoyed the support of 64% of those who voted Leave, but only 4% of those who backed Remain, while the equivalent figures among those who backed UKIP were 6% and 1% respectively. Equally, no less than 90% of Brexit Party voters either want to leave the EU without a deal (67%) or on the basis of a different deal than the one negotiated by Mrs May (23%), while the equivalent combined tally among UKIP supporters was 70%.
Meanwhile, those voting for the Liberal Democrats were firmly on the other side of the Brexit debate. The party won the support of 36% of those who voted Remain, thereby displacing Labour as the single most popular party among this group, but just 4% of those who had voted Leave. No less than 90% of those who voted for the party affirmed to Lord Ashcroft that their current preference was to remain in the EU rather than leave on the basis of any possible deal, let alone none at all. With 19% support among 2016 Remainers and 4% among Leavers, the character of the vote for the Greens was not dissimilar, though at 72% the proportion now backing Remain over some form of leaving was somewhat lower. Meanwhile, 78% of Change UK voters indicated a preference for remaining versus leaving, though the ratio of the party’s support among those who voted Remain (5%) to that among those who backed Leave (2%) is not as high as the equivalent ratio for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens.
However, the vote for other parties was much more heterogeneous in character. This was most obviously true in the case of the Conservatives, who proved to be equally (un-)popular among both those who voted Remain (9%) and those who backed Leave 9%). There was no consensus at all amongst those who voted Conservative about whether they wanted to Remain (28%), leave on the basis of Mrs May’s deal (36%), leave on the basis of an alternative deal (17%) or leave without a deal (14%). Labour was more popular among Remain voters (19%) than Leave supporters (8%), and 63% indicated that their preference was to remain in the EU rather than leave in one way or another, but, even so, the party was still bridging the Remain-Leave divide to some degree. Meanwhile, polling undertaken in Scotland by Panelbase shortly before the election (which accurately anticipated the 38% won by the SNP north of the border) found that while the party was winning the support of no less than 49% of Remain supporters, it was also backed by 20% of Leavers.
There are then very clear dangers in trying to infer the balance of attitudes towards Brexit among voters from the results of the election. Remain voters may well have been more likely to have voted, while not everyone’s choice reflected their stance on Brexit. However, that does not mean we cannot learn any lessons from the election about attitudes towards Brexit. Above all, the election underlines not only the polarisation of attitudes towards Brexit but also the intensity with which those attitudes are held by some voters.
We have written previously about how attitudes towards Brexit have seemingly become polarised between those who would be willing to leave the EU without a deal and those who would like another referendum – or would simply like to revoke Article 50 – and that as a result there is relatively little public support for any of the compromise positions that have been proposed – including Mrs May’s deal and any softer Norway-style Brexit as envisaged by Labour. This pattern is replicated in Lord Ashcroft’s post-election poll in which the two most popular options among all voters are either to remain in the EU (40%) or to leave without a deal (27%). Thus, in promoting their respective compromise positions on Brexit both the Conservatives and Labour found themselves at this election attempting to occupy a centre ground on Brexit that has long seemed relatively poorly populated – and was certainly little understood by voters (see, for example, here and here). Given that Euro-elections are often regarded as ‘second-order’ contests in which voters are more likely to vote for smaller parties and to express their views about the EU, this was always a potentially risky position to be occupying.
So, although not all voters used the Euro-election to express their views about Brexit, the fact that many did so laid the foundations for the collapse in Conservative and Labour support. According to Lord Ashcroft no less than 81% of those who voted for the Brexit Party and 68% of those who backed the Liberal Democrats gave Brexit as their principal reason for doing so. Conversely, only 13% of Labour voters and 8% of Conservative supporters indicated that they were making their choice on the basis of Brexit. They were much more likely to be voting on the basis of party loyalty – as many as 36% of Labour voters and 34% of Conservatives gave this as their principal reason for voting the way that they did. The trouble for both of those parties is that for many voters the pull of party loyalty was weaker than the attraction of expressing their views about Brexit. In other words, the election revealed that not only is the electorate polarised between leaving without a deal and remaining in the EU, but also that many on both sides of the argument hold those views sufficiently intently that, in a second-order election at least, they prefer to express those views rather than adhere to their traditional party loyalty.
As a result, the fragility of the electoral coalitions that both the Conservatives and Labour had put together in the 2017 election, when between them they won over 80% of the vote, was cruelly exposed. Although the Conservatives had garnered support most successfully from among those who voted Leave, around a third of the party’s voters had voted Remain. Conversely, although Labour had proven more popular among those who had voted Remain, around a third had backed Leave. Neither party had much success in retaining the support of either part of their coalition.
The Conservatives’ biggest problem was undoubtedly maintaining the support of those of their supporters who had voted Leave. Many of these after all had backed UKIP before the 2017 election and had only switched to the Conservatives in the belief that they were best placed actually to deliver Brexit. Given the failure of the government to deliver Brexit on the original target date of March 29, the return of Nigel Farage to the electoral scene served to make switching to the Brexit Party seem like an attractive option. Over a half (53%) of all those who voted Conservative in 2017 and voted in the Euro-election voted for the Brexit Party – a figure that equates to around four in five of all those Conservatives who had voted Leave. It is this movement that explains why, in contrast to the position in 2017, at this election the Conservatives were no more popular among Leave voters than they were among Remain supporters.
However, the party was also losing ground among its minority of voters who had backed Remain. According to Lord Ashcroft, 20% of those who voted Conservative in 2017 switched to either the Liberal Democrats (especially), the Greens, or Change UK, most of them people who had voted Remain in 2016. This represented the equivalent of losing around 60% of the party’s Remain supporters. The Conservatives were struggling to retain the support of both parts of their 2017 electoral coalition.
Labour found itself in a similar position. On the one hand, the party lost 22% of its vote to the Liberal Democrats, 17% to the Greens and 4% to Change UK, the vast majority of them people who had voted Remain. These figures mean that Labour lost the support of around three in five of those that voted Remain, much the same proportion as the Conservatives though it represents a much larger share of its total vote. However, at the same time Labour also lost 13% of its vote to the Brexit Party, or around two in five of the party’s Leave supporters. Labour’s Leave support may not have been as willing to switch to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party as the much larger body of Leave voters in the Conservatives’ ranks, but even so the party was also clearly losing ground at both ends of the Brexit spectrum.
None of this seems set to make the Brexit impasse any easier to resolve. The Euro-election has underlined the polarisation of public attitudes towards Brexit. It has strengthened and given momentum both to the ranks of those advocating no deal and of those supporting a second referendum. Meanwhile, the country’s two largest parties at Westminster, already deeply divided on the subject, now seem embarked on serious internal arguments about how they could handle Brexit in such a way that they might rescue themselves from the deep electoral hole in which they now find themselves. Neither would seem to have an easy task. Whoever said that these elections would not matter?