Europe, turnout, the BNP, the Greens and fair votes

I’ve just got back from an hour’s stint on LBC talking about Yurp. Myself and fellow guest Hugo Brady from the Centre of European Reform were both under the impression we were there to discuss how the European Parliament works and the elections themselves. Instead we found ourselves being asked to mount a full frontal defence of the EU itself, covering everything from the CAP to auditing budgets. Not an easy task when you aren’t prepared (and as a non-expert of the subject I probably wouldn’t have gone on on that basis, but there you go).

For the record, incidently, I would quite happily scrap the Common Agricultural Policy. It’s appalling. If you do think that however, and you actually care about people unfairly affected by it in developing countries (as one of the callers purported to do), then the single worst thing you could do is pull out of the EU and allow the opponents of reform to have it entirely their own way. I don’t like a lot of UK policies and want UK political reform, but if you heard me calling for us to pull out of the UK on that basis you would consider me to be an utter loon.

What I didn’t get a chance to discuss were the poll findings that Vote Match/Unlock Democracy unveiled yesterday suggesting that tomorrow’s turnout could be an all time high for the European Elections. 50% in our YouGov survey said they were definitely going to vote (another 11% gave an ‘8’ or ‘9’ incidentally), which YouGov advise suggests a nominal turnout of 43-45%. That’s pretty unprecedented.

It is clear that the reason for this potentially (and comparatively) high turnout is not a hard fought contest about the European Parliament itself (if only) but MPs’ expenses and the subsequent meltdown of the UK Parliament. In short, the public are out to give the political classes a bloody nose. But it is also interesting to note both the generational and gender differences. Simply put, younger voters will be turning out in much fewer numbers and are not doing so because they simply don’t know what the elections are about. Older voters are, unsurprisingly, most likely to turn out. But it is the middle-aged voters who are most likely to abstain because of the expenses scandal itself. Women are likely to turn out in comparative numbers to men but their reason for not doing so again has more to do with not knowing enough about the elections than it has to do with scandal.

YouGov have also done an eve of poll for the Telegraph, suggesting that Labour may be pushed into third or even fourth place. As Anthony Wells has been chronicling, the polls are all over the place at the moment – the pollsters’ rules-of-thumb assumptions which they use to weight their data appear to have been blown wide open by the collapse in Labour support. We live in unprecedented times and it remains to be seen which pollster emerges with the most credit.

Nonetheless Anthony makes a good fist of an argument that YouGov are likely to be more accurate than most and for all their critics they have tended to be quite accurate. Either way, it looks terrible for Labour, with the Tory and Lib Dem levels of support staying at around their 2004 levels. The Greens look like their vote will be up while UKIP could either be significantly up or a bit down.

The Telegraph report that the 5% figure the YouGov poll gives the BNP suggests that they may well make the breakthrough they were hoping for in the North West. We only have the national figures to look at right now but unless the North West specific figures say something different, I’m not so sure. Based on the national swing, that puts the parties in the North West at:

Conservative: 23% (-1%, 2 MEPs)
Labour: 20% (-7%, 2 MEPs)
Lib Dem: 16% (-, 2 MEPs)
UKIP: 14% (+2%, 1 MEP)
Green: 10% (+4%, 1 MEP)
BNP: 6% (-, 0 MEPs)

Those figures come with a health warning, not to mention the fact that national swings are pretty spurious at the best of times. But it does highlight one aspect of this election which has been criminally under-reported: the resurgence of the Green Party. The psephology behind their Stop Nick Griffin campaign is entirely spurious but there is no escaping the fact that every vote for the Greens in the North West will make it harder for the BNP to get elected (where they are wrong is where they claim that a tactical Green vote is better than a vote for the Tories, Labour, Lib Dems or UKIP in this respect). And with a poll leap of the scale that every pollster appears to be reporting will result in a quite healthy haul of Green MEPs. This is a big deal – certainly a bigger deal than the possibility that the BNP might win a single seat. Yet by and large they have been ignored.

If I have one prediction to make about these elections it is that they will be a vindications of the proportional voting system. I dislike closed list systems but even closed list-PR is better than closed list-FPTP.

Would we be looking at such a dramatic result if we still used FPTP for the European Elections? In one sense, we would. The story right now would not be “will the BNP gain a seat in the North West?” but “will the BNP gain seats in East London, the Potteries, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire?” All of these areas are places where FPTP has enabled the BNP to gain a foothold – often gaining swathes of seats with remarkably small shares of the vote. The BNP would have a much easier time targeting four old-style Euro-constituencies than they have targeting a whole region. Far from making it easier for the BNP then, PR has actually made it tougher.

But overall, it would have lead to business-as-usual. PR has given the public a means of punishing the political class (which as a whole, completely deserves it). Without PR, we would be looking at a repeat of 1989 where the Greens got 15% of the vote and not a single seat. Now maybe it is time the Greens (and UKIP) got their act together and learned to target but the electorate shouldn’t have to wait for them to get their tactics right in order to express its displeasure (and targeting is at best a necessary evil in any case).

Face the facts: under FPTP, we would not now be looking at as high a turnout and the main parties would be sitting pretty. The public would have no outlet to vent their frustration. That would have been a dangerously unhealthy state of affairs.

It is certainly frustrating that the last thing this election is being decided upon is what it is osensibly about – the future direction of the European Union. But if what we get in exchange is the first real opportunity for the public to fully express itself in a UK-wide election, that is a price worth paying. Now: let’s replace it with an open list system or STV so it can be even better!


  1. I agree there should have been more reporting of the greens, they appear to be doing rather well but have been overshadowed by UKIP and BNP paranoia.

    However, in the North West their tactical argument is more doudtful. If they beat the BNP to 5th and win a seat in doing so then they have stopped them yes; but if they come below them they have not only failed to contribute at all to stopping them, they have taken votes away from parties that might have.

    Of course, its nearly impossible to recommended a tactical vote (would have been labour from last times results but ha to that, maybe tories riding high? UKIP?) so it doesn’t really matter except to reject tactical voting beyond picking a party which might get a seat…

  2. I’ve just been acting as a teller in a held seat in the North West. Polling is not particularly brisk, but it isn’t drastically low either. Both myself and the Tory teller were pleasantly surprised by the turnout. At least one man actually said that the only reason he was turning out, despite his years of voting, was to stop the BNP. So I think that the number of fair-minded people should balance out the racist loons.

  3. Tinter,

    The main message in the North West is that there is no reliable tactic for stopping the BNP, except maybe not voting for one of the really minor parties such as Libertas, Jury Team or NO2EU. It looks to me as if all the main parties – and the BNP – are in contention for the eighth seat.

    If the Greens really have made the breakthrough that all the polls suggest they have then I would predict they already assured of winning the 7th seat. At this stage therefore, I would say that it tactically makes the least amount of sense to vote Green.

  4. I don’t trust the YouGov likelihood to vote figures—I’ve no problems with YouGov using the net as they do for polling, and believe they can get a representative sample of the population except for one point.

    Those on the YouGov panel are likely to be more informed and more aware than similar demographics that aren’t on the panel and/or aren’t online.

    The type of person likely to sign up to Yougov is more likely to be the type of person that’s likely to vote. I know they apply weighting mechanisms and similar, but…

    I’d like to believe turnout is going to be that high, but to get a significantly higher turnout here than 2004 when 2004 was an all up MBC election as well is very unlikely, not to mention the other tricks Blair pulled, like postal ballot trials everywhere, etc.

    We’ll see I guess.

  5. Vindication of PR, possibly.
    But bearing in mind the small numbers of seats up for grabs it’s difficult to say that any number of seats represents a ‘breakthrough’ for a third or fourth party – UKIP got 12 last time and are they considered a serious force potentially challenging for overall leadership or just a single-issue party?
    The Greens will crow while they can, but recent scrutiny of their science policies show them to be a long way from the mainstream or from the ability to offer a realistic contribution.
    When a Euro election is contested on European issues then I’ll be more convinced that the method of voting is a more reliable way of deciding the public mind. As it is, it is still dominated by domestic issues, so I remain highly sceptical.
    FPTP has serious weaknesses, but I think those weaknesses are magnified by the centralised nature of the country and the UK media environment which means regional parties are more easily dismissed.
    As far as I’m concerned electoral reform is meaningless unless it is tied to constitutional reform (and preferably regional/duchy assemblies).

  6. Oranjepan – no electoral system in the world can force people to vote on a particular basket of issues if they are not so inclined. Indeed, the fact that the European Elections are seen as a secondary poll is by no means exclusive to the UK (I was at a seminar last year where this was the main complaint by academics across the EU).

    While constitutional reform is clearly desirable, I can’t see how you can justify that electoral reform would be meaningless without it. Indeed, I can’t see how real constitutional reform will ever happen until we have PR first to open the door.

    FPTP forces such issues off the agenda except in extreme circumstances such as this present crisis.

  7. Erm, was that the point I was making?

    On constitutional vs electoral reform, are we just arguing chickens vs eggs or is it also a matter of coherence? Get the wrong kind of egg and you may end up with a crocodile!

    What you mean by real constitutional reform suggests you have a particular preference in mind – abolition of the constitutional monarch? institutionalised competition for primacy between different houses of parliament etc?

    Change of systems is all well and good, but interest groups have a way of adapting, so fundamental improvements may actually be postponed by poorly thought through reforms. Would it actually be quicker, easier and fairer to adapt than to reform?

    Looking at European electoral examples political dynamism has either been reduced or over stimulated and corruption is often tolerated to a much higher extent, so I’d say be careful what you wish for and go in with your eyes wide open.

    As we’re having a balanced argument and I’m play devils advocate for the time being I think sufficient emphasis must be given to the advantages of an oppositional style of debate ie that it forces confrontation – FPTP actually raises the stakes and forces politicians to deal with issues, whereas PR can allow them to pile up and encourage collusion among the political classes against the wider population.

    If we want to get the best of both worlds then I seriously think the form of constitution and the type of election have to be consistent with each other, so effective reform requires one to be matched with the other.

    I don’t think this is an issue which we can chip away at incrementally and I don’t think the public will be pleased if they perceive any dishonesty or start doubting any motives. The public wants transparency because we hope that this will bring clarity. Consequently I think we need a fully-rounded set of ideas to put to the people so that we can have a new 1832 moment.

    If we cannot do that then I would encourage further reform of the party system to cope (though this is already happening anyway).

    The crisis which has been precipitated has been looming since the first world war when universal suffrage and the end of empire was upon us, and this is an opportunity to shape or forestall the crisis of the next century.

    What would you prefer – your ideal solution, or a means to create lasting confidence in whatever system we end up with?

  8. Mat – it looks like you were quite right about the YouGov poll. They need to look into that.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.