BARNABY TOWNS: How the European elections herald changed politics

PUBLISHED: 12:58 28 May 2019 | UPDATED: 12:58 28 May 2019

A woman holds an European flag outside the European Parliament (JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

A woman holds an European flag outside the European Parliament (JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Archant

Barnaby Towns looks at how the European elections are transforming the political landscape.

European election polls have been on a wild ride. Once sidelined by media and treated as a referendum on incumbent governments, this year's polling day is being taken seriously in its own right.

Dramatic electoral shocks aren't new. David Cameron's Tories secured 23% in 2014 and Gordon Brown's Labour won just 15% in 2009 - both in the final year of their parliaments. But this ninth set of European elections look poised to break new records with, as voters go to the polls, YouGov reporting 15% support for Labour and 9% for the Tories.

Rollercoaster European election rides also are a fact of life for the big two's challengers. In 1989, the Green Party, fuelled by unpopular government and lacklustre official opposition, surged from under 1% in prior contests to take 15% of the poll. That year, the newly-formed Liberal Democrats sank to 6%, lower even than their coalition-era 7% in 2014. Yet post-ERM crash-out and pre-Blair, the party earned 16%. Similarly, four-year-old UKIP won 1% at their first European electoral trial in 1994, but topped the poll at 27% some 20 years later.

It is entirely possible that both major parties will fail to make the top two this time, after one each failed to do so in 2014 and 2009. The decline of the two-party duopoly has been steady if not swift over nine contests. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher's Tories secured nearly half the popular vote and 60 of 77 seats, including five of eight Scottish constituencies. In 1994 - Labour's high-water mark under interim leader Margaret Beckett - the party received 43% and 62 seats out of 82, taking nine of 10 London constituencies. The days of winner-take-all first-past-the-post are over for these contests, fortunately for Labour and Tories, otherwise they would face virtual wipe-out, according to YouGov polling.

Implications for pro-European old hands, the Lib Dems and Greens, and scrappy start-up Change UK, may also reach far. Penultimate week polling combined the Lib Dem-Green-Change UK-SNP-Plaid vote share at 36%, a shade ahead of the Brexit Party at 34%. Nationally, YouGov had Brexit: 34%; Lib Dems: 17%; Lab: 15%; Tories: 9%; Change UK: 4%. For MEP seats, the shares in English region, Scottish and Welsh national strengths matter on this clunky regional/national list proportional representation system.

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In Remain Central - London - where YouGov has Remain polling at 70%, You Gov's most recent mega-poll had Lib Dems: 24%; Brexit: 21%; Labour: 19%; Green: 14%; Tories: 10%; Change UK: 6%. This would yield five Remainer and three Leave MPs, 7.5 points shy in share of the current London Remain/Leave split.

Scotland had YouGov tentatively throwing up shock numbers - SNP: 38%; BXP: 20%; Green: 11%; Lab: 10%; Con: 10%; Lib Dem: 7%; Change UK: 2% - among Scots respondents in their most recent mega-poll, producing five Remainer and one Leave MEPs, 83% of the total - rather higher than YouGov's current 66% Remain polling.

Wales, in YouGov's latest numbers, was less dramatic but still startling: BXP: 35%; Plaid: 19%; Lab: 15%; Lib Dem: 9%; Green: 7%; Con: 5%; Change UK: 3%. These numbers produce two Brexit Party, one Labour and one Plaid MEP, a 50:50 Remainer/Leave MEP split, a little adrift from the 55:45 divide in Remain's favour most recently found by YouGov.

English regions outside London on YouGov's mega poll had Lib Dems outperforming YouGov's national numbers in south east (21%) and south west (20%); Greens in Yorkshire and Humberside (13%); and south west (12%); and Change UK in south east (5%) and north east (5%).

Once Sunday night's local authority tallies are calculated by constituency and added to the previous national data, including 2016's referendum and 2017's general election, the texture of results will indicate the best prospects for parliamentary holds for the 11-each Change UK and Lib Dem MPs and one Green, as well as potential gains from the larger parties. Majority-Remain Westminster constituencies - now more than half the total - then might be targeted with one mainstream Remain candidate, maximising smaller pro-Europe parties' chances.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives and Labour, third and fifth respectively in YouGov's national polling, would have plenty to think about after such disastrous returns: potentially the worst Tory national result since 1835 and lowest Labour UK-wide share since 1918's 'coupon election'.

Overall, pro-Europe party coordination will almost certainly be sought to compensate for the unfairness of first-past-the-post, and to combat a single Brexit Party. With potentially one Brexit Party candidate and one mainstream Remain alliance candidate in most, perhaps even all, constituencies we could see further disintegration of the two-party system, as inward versus outward replaces left against right.

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