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.

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

  1. ahh it seems some areas are reporting some turnout now, ok well let’s see how it goes! I think there is a danger for the Brexit party that Brexiteers dislike these elections and feel disenfranchised (which is a really regrettable situation) but the polling didn’t show too much of that, so we’ll see!
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  2. Jack, where have you got the info that turnout has been higher in Remain areas than Leave ones? Or are you referring to the Gen election/last referendum? UK turnout figures for these elections aren’t released yet anything else is speculation/wishful thinking. I remember in the 2016 POTUS election where the commentariat were gleefully reporting a high turn out in Democrat areas, hispanics and other groups they take for granted. The reality proved to be very different. So we’ll just have to see I think.Report

  3. The only way out of this impasse that respects the referendum as the current parliamentary arithmetic will remain unchanged is if a leaver who will countenance no deal on becoming Tory Leader and PM secures a Brexit majority in parliament by calling a general election before 31st October. That might even mean a Con/Brexit Party (as well as the backing of the DUP) pact as in other countries like Germany and Australia in which the supposedly main centre right party has a pact/association with the usually smaller one in national parliamentary elections.

    If the Ken Clarke’s, Dominic Grieve’s, Rory Stewart’s and Amber Rudd’s of this world don’t like it then they can always finally resolve their ideological identity crisis by joining the Lib Dems or “Change UK” where they really belong.

    And as far as really properly leaving with or without a deal being an economic disaster it just aint true that membership of the EU has made much difference to our economic growth compared to the period from after the second world war to 1973 (the year we joined) and the period since 1973.And that was when there was a less liberal international trading system than there is now. Plus we should perhaps pay more credence to economists who have got things more right than wrong about the ERM,the Euro and too much cheap money leading to the financial crisis who also say claims Brexit is a self evident act in economic self harm are rubbish.(Not forgetting the EU’s own, perhaps ultimately terminal, problems which would really vindicate leaving.) Just like we might listen more to Doctors who have a better track record for diagnoses and treatments of patients illnesses.

    (Even the Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman, no fan of Brexit, has called out exaggerations of any downside as being due to “motivated reasoning.”)Report

  4. For Douglas. (ps accidentally hit the report, rather than reply button, sorry)

    I think the ‘will of the people’ wasn’t hard to gauge at the time, because the fear background campaign ran by Cameron made the result crystal clear, and the public knew it was fear-mongering in the leaflet and still vote by a decent amount against. But three years on and the media creating a moniker ‘Remainer’ that has allowed Parliamentarians to obstruct direct democracy, things are now not so clear. Either way, Leave is still 1 : Nil up in the argument, and even if we had another vote (ran by a PM that would be pro-Leave, which will make things a lot harder for a remain argument), at best, an option to vote for a third Referendum (with Remain on the third ballot) would be the best re-remain campaigners should expect; if they truly want to change the countries mind, bring us all together and legitimately win the argument 1 : 2 for us remaining.IMHOReport

  5. I’m afraid voters don’t read manifestos. Nor for that matter do the commentators, all of whom have settled for the false view that Tories and Labour said the same on Brexit in their 2017 manifestos. (Labour MPs were in line with their manifesto in voting against May’s Deal.)
    Presumably if The Brexit Party stood in a general election, Farage would need to produce something that got called a manifesto, and many would know that it was, as Farage says all manifestos are, lies. We can be sure it would be short on the details of policies on taxation, spending on public services, benefits, education, health, housing, the justice system. (I take it we can know it would contain a bit of climate change denial, to which many still resonate.) And people who, for whatever reason, have come to like him won’t care what he says in any case. I fear that May’s downfall coincides with a populist upsurge. Report

  6. We now know the turnout in UK was higher in Remain areas than Leave areas. The key to who looks good on Sunday is differential turnout – there has been several well-organised Remain campaigns to steer voters to maximise the number of “Remain” party MEPs – we will see how effective that has been soon enough, but I expect Green, LibDem & SNP to have done well, Labour less well – judging by the unscientific measure of tweet volumes. Brexit voters include a lot of non-Twitter generation so not sure we can tell how well they did but they do seem to have stolen a lot of Tory votesReport

  7. For John L.

    It may be helpful to remind ourselves that there are two types of democracy. In our country, we have a representative democracy whereby elected MPs use their judgement to decide what’s best for their constituents and for the nation. However, the 2016 referendum and Cameron’s promise introduced an element of direct democracy by allowing the people to decide on a major policy issue.

    Most Parliamentarians at the time, including Theresa May, judged it to be in the best interests of the Country to remain, so Parliament was faced with a dilemma: to uphold representative democracy and do what is generally regards as the best for the Country, or to accept the result of the referendum. Unfortunately, the two options are mutually exclusive, and a compromise has been proven to be impossible.

    The current parliament is not a massive threat to either form of democracy. It is simply that they cannot agree which sort they should follow.

    The ‘will of the people’ should trump the sovereignty exercised in Parliament, but there are two big questions – for leavers and remainers. The first is whether the will of the people should be implemented if it will do the nation harm (like trashing the economy and breaching an international treaty). Many leavers believe it’s worth the risk.

    The second question is does the referendum result truly reflect the will of the people, bearing in mind there was obviously a protest vote (amomgst who voted leave) and the result was very close.
    I think most Remainers do accept Leavers ‘won’, but bearing in mind the narrow margin, many don’t accept that this is a sufficiently valid reason for making everyone worse off, ruining our international reputation and breaching the Good Friday agreement.

    It’s not a matter of Parliament going back on their word, or ignoring the will of the people. They simply want to do what’s best for us all, which is what we pay them to do.
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  8. It is hard to overstate the irony of a party without a manifesto standing as a bastion of democracy. When asked what he would do should he be elected in a general election Mr Farage loses his temper. When asked if he wants to privatise the NHS, as he once said, he prevaricates; when asked what he would do about immigration, he says that’s an old issue that no one cares about anymore. What would he do about taxation or investment in public services? Or education? Or housing? Or the environment? Or the economy?
    To seek to be elected without a manifesto is to seek authority from the public to do anything that he pleases. That is a cynical manipulation of democracy and an act of deception upon the electorate.Report

  9. I think that the Brexit voter considers the current westminster parliament as a massive threat to electoral representational democracy itself, this has gone beyond a simple fight to save the Brexit we voted for and the parliament voted overwhelmingly to deliver.

    The people now see that the voters democratic choice is meaningless and when push comes to shove our Parliament all to readily goes back on it’s word and ignores the majority will of it’s voters, this has created a huge lack of trust in those we elected to represent us, it appears that they no longer are a house of constituency representatives but have become a house of independent determinators.

    Not only does this scare those who voted for Brexit and UK democracy it also scares many of those who voted bremain and who can see that their democracy is also slipping away as parliamentary MP’s stop listening to their contituents and starts doing it’s own thing regardless of the majority vote.

    A truly worrying state of affairs indeed….to close to the EU’s way of doing things for comfort, it’s the shape of things to come.Report

    1. Totally agree. This is why the next leader of the Tory Party is largely irrelevant. I find it quite laughable that Boris is still being touted as the favourite to replace May when most Tory Leave members wouldn’t trust him as far as they could throw him and recognize him for what he is: an opportunist who will jump on any bandwagon if he thinks it will deliver him to No.10, and who will ditch all his ‘principles’ at the first hurdle if it guarantees his survival.

      The entire political class is out of touch and behind the curve. They seem oblivious to how the public feels and of the political tsunami heading their way. Most Leave voters now understand that it is not simply the incumbent Tory Prime Minister that’s the problem, but our entire Remain-dominated parliament. This is why it is important that the Brexit Party stands in the next General Election, as it intends to, because we need to redress the balance in parliament in order to get a true Brexit delivered. I’m no Farage fan but am a huge fan of democracy. The Brexit party doesn’t need to last long and given the diversity of political opinion of its candidates and supporters, neither it is likely to, at least not in its current form. Once it has done the job it set out to do: ensure Brexit is delivered and democracy upheld, we can begin the long-overdue task of building new parties and movements to further our different interests. Brexit has unfrozen politics and afforded us the opportunity to breathe new life into our political system and seek new ways of governing ourselves. The refusal of parliament to deliver on our mandate has been the undoing of both mainstream parties and it would seem the old two-party system is imploding. Good; now we can begin to put real Politics back on the table.
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