Two Very Different Battles? Pointers from the Final Polls of Euro-Election Vote Intention

Posted on 23 May 2019 by John Curtice

A plethora of polls published in the last hours of the campaign have affirmed the likely outcome of one of the key political battles in the Euro-election  – but have left us rather uncertain about the outcome of another. That said, it is clear that Sunday is set to be an uncomfortable night for both the Conservatives and Labour, and will likely raise important questions about the future of Britain’s traditional two-party system.

The battle whose outcome is clear is that between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party for the support of those who voted Leave. That is a contest that Nigel Farage is set to win hands down.  Where the message of the polls is much less certain is in the fight between Labour and the Liberal Democrats for the support of Remain voters.

On average, the seven ‘final’ polls of voting intention for the Euro-elections, all of which conducted at least some of their interviewing during the last week of the campaign, suggest that the Brexit Party is set to win the support of nearly two-thirds (63%) of those who voted Leave in 2016. Although, as one might anticipate, only a handful of Remain supporters are willing to vote for a party whose principal message is that the UK should leave the EU without a deal, that proportion is enough to put the party on 34% among voters as a whole – putting it in first place and suggesting that the party will exceed the 27% of the vote that UKIP won (also under Nigel Farage’s leadership) in 2014.

As a result, support for the Conservatives, the party in whom most Leave voters invested their trust in 2017, has been decimated. The party’s average standing is just 11%. Well over half (55%) of all those who voted Conservative in 2017 and indicate they will participate in the Euro-election say they will vote for the Brexit Party – a figure that rises  to around three-quarters among those 2017 Conservative voters who backed Leave. Instead of being a party that primarily represents Leave voters, the Conservatives find themselves no more popular among supporters of Brexit (11%) than they are among those who voted Remain (13%).

The reasons for this tsunami of switching from the Conservatives to the Brexit Party among Leave voters are not hard discern. Polling has consistently found that at least a half of those who voted Leave think the UK should leave the EU without a deal. They thus have little sympathy for a party that has failed to deliver Brexit because it has been unable to secure the assent of the Commons to the deal that has been negotiated. After all, in many cases they only switched from voting UKIP in 2014 or 2015 because they thought the Conservatives were best able to implement the decision to leave. Meanwhile, as both Opinium and YouGov have shown, voters are far from clear about where the Conservatives stand on Brexit, while (according to YouGov) as many as 40% of Leave voters have come to the conclusion that the Conservative party is actually opposed to Brexit. In contrast, most voters have little difficulty in understanding where the Brexit Party stands (see also here), thanks not least to Nigel Farage’s high-profile campaigning in favour of the Eurosceptic cause.

Polls conducted at the beginning of the Euro-election campaigned confirmed the by now familiar picture that the Labour was the single most popular choice among those who voted Remain in 2017. On average, as many as 43% expressed that view, while only 14% opted for the Liberal Democrats. Although the latest polls disagree about how far this pattern has changed, they all agree that Labour’s grip on the Remain vote has been eroded. Indeed, on average the latest polls put the two parties neck and neck among Remain voters, with 29% opting for the Liberal Democrats and 28% for the Labour party. Only the fact that the Liberal Democrat vote is almost wholly a Remain vote (and almost all the eight-point increase in the party’s support has come from that quarter, including from among some Conservatives who voted Remain) whereas Labour does have some support among Leave voters (10%) ensures that, on average, Labour is still reckoned to be narrowly ahead among voters as a whole, albeit by only 19% to 17%.

This itself is sufficient grounds to come to the view that we cannot be sure which of those two parties will emerge ahead in the ballot boxes and claim second place. But the uncertainty is even greater thanks to the fact that the polls differ dramatically in their estimate of Labour support. At one end of the spectrum YouGov put the party on just 13%, while at the other end Panelbase put the party on 25%. As a result, while three polls put Labour at least three points ahead of the Liberal Democrats, two reckon that the Liberal Democrats are ahead by at least that amount, and two others put the two parties almost neck and neck. Who will come second has come to be the most intriguing question of the election.

But even if Labour do fend off the Liberal Democrat challenge, unless the party does so convincingly questions are bound to be raised about whether the party should come out more firmly in favour of a second referendum. Certainly, as in the case of the Conservatives, voters are far from clear as to where Labour stand on Brexit, while they are rather clearer about the Liberal Democrats’ position. And in an election where around half of voters say that they are voting on the basis of their views about Brexit rather than because of traditional party loyalty or other issues (see also here), it seems that this contrast matters. On average, nearly one in five (18%) of those who voted Labour in 2017 (and around one in four of those who voted Remain) say they are voting Liberal Democrat in the Euro-election.

Not that the Liberal Democrats are the only one of the pro-Remain parties taking votes off Labour. The Greens have also added to Labour’s difficulties, with some 14% of the 2017 Labour vote heading in that direction, a movement that is helping the Greens on average to match the 8% tally that it secured in the last Euro-election in 2014. In combination, Labour’s losses to the Greens and the Liberal Democrats amount to one in three of those who voted for the party two years ago.

However, losses of support to more avowedly pro-Remain parties is not the only source of Labour’s difficulties. During the campaign, the party has lost ground – some six points – among Leave voters too.  Much of that loss has been inflicted by the Brexit Party, to which as many as 14% of 2017 Labour voters have switched, representing at least one in three of those Labour voters who voted Leave. Nigel Farage may not have done anything like as much damage on Labour as he has on the Conservatives, but he may inflict enough to convince those Labour MPs who do not want another second referendum that they should continue to oppose any such move. Trouble is, what does seem to be the case is that Labour’s attempt to retain the support of both sides in the Brexit debate by pursuing a compromise position runs the risk of losing the backing of both Remainers and Leavers.

Still, whatever the travails being suffered by both Labour and the Conservatives, there are two other contenders for whom the prospects look even worse. With an average level of support of just 4%, the Change UK group of former Labour and Conservative MPs look set to lose the civil war with the Liberal Democrats for the pro-Remain vote, an outcome that will doubtless raise questions about what the group’s future relationship with the Liberal Democrats should be. Equally, UKIP have comprehensively lost the battle with the Brexit Party for the Eurosceptic vote. Some of the challengers to the Conservative-Labour duopoly at least look as though they will emerge from this election significantly weakened.

Of course, as soon as the votes are counted on Sunday, the question will be raised as to what might be the implications of the result for the future of British politics. The outcome will not tell us what would happen in an immediate general election. Many voters will vote differently at the Euro-election from how they would in such a ballot. Indeed, recent polls of voting intentions for Westminster put the Conservatives (on 24%) and Labour (on 29%) in a somewhat better (but very far from healthy) position than it is anticipated will emerge from the ballot boxes on Sunday. Moreover, past experience suggests that some of those voters who in the midst of a Euro-election campaign say that they would vote for a smaller party in a Westminster contest often change their minds once the Euro-votes have been counted and the election forgotten. Except, of course, Brexit – the principal source of the difficulties being faced by Labour and the Conservatives in this year’s Euro-election – is unlikely to disappear from the political agenda any time soon.

John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

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