The elections

On 24 May, the day after the European Parliament elections were held in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but before the votes were counted, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation. It is now expected that a general election will be held this year, meaning that the European election results should be of particular interest to politicians in London.

For while the results of a general election will certainly differ from those of the European elections, not least because of the completely different electoral systems used, the latter do provide a good indication of the national mood.

Brexit is the issue dominating UK politics at the moment, so it is no surprise that this came through particularly strongly in the European Parliament elections. In the UK, the election results will be mainly looked at through the prism of one question, namely ‘What is the ratio of votes for pro-Brexit parties to those cast for parties wanting the country to remain part of the European Union?’ In this equation the Labour Party is still the one unknown quantity, with their position being regarded as indecisive at best but ostensibly pro-Brexit. At the 2014 European elections, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led at that time by Nigel Farage, picked up the votes of the most vociferous advocates of leaving the EU.

Since then, Farage has left UKIP, running again for the European Parliament this time with his newly-established Brexit Party. On the other side of the argument, supporting the UK’s continued membership of the European Union, a whole panoply of parties stood for election: Change UK (a new party created by members of parliament defecting from Labour and the Conservative Party), the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru. The political landscape in Northern Ireland is very different from that of Great Britain. By far the largest political forces there are the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who as unionists want to remain part of the UK, and the republican Sinn Féin, who back Northern Ireland joining the Republic of Ireland. Despite supporting Brexit, the DUP rejected the deal the May government had negotiated with the rest of the EU, considering the arrangements for Northern Ireland unacceptable. Sinn Féin is against Brexit altogether.

The results

The clear winners were Nigel Farage’s newly-founded Brexit Party. In 2014, Farage’s UKIP won 26.6% of the vote, taking 24 seats in the European Parliament. In the 2019 European elections, the Brexit Party garnered a 31.6% vote share and 29 seats. The obvious losers were the governing Conservatives (Tories). Their share of the vote plummeted 14.8 percentage points, from 23.05% in 2014 to just 9.1%. They lost 15 seats, leaving them with just four. Labour, the main opposition party in the UK parliament, lost almost as much ground as the governing party, slumping from 24.4% to 14.1%. This means they now only have 10 seats, 10 fewer than in the 2014 elections. Among the parties that clearly support the UK staying in the EU, the Liberal Democrats made a major breakthrough, coming in second place after the Brexit Party, with 20.3% of the vote and 16 seats. In 2014, they had only secured one seat and a vote share of 6.7%. Among the other options for ‘Remain’ voters, the Greens did very well, with their score of 12.1% landing them seven seats.

Change UK ended up in a lowly eighth place with 3.4%, failing to win a seat in the European Parliament. The Scottish nationalists, the SNP, picked up three seats, and their Welsh counterparts, Plaid Cymru, took one. In Northern Ireland, there was only one change in terms of the distribution of seats. While Sinn Féin and the DUP each retained their one seat, the Alliance Party secured its first seat in the European Parliament. This means that instead of being picked up by a Protestant unionist party as it had been before, this seat is now going to a liberal, non-denominational party.

The parties that clearly support remaining in the EU (the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Change UK, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Féin) achieved about 41%, but the parties obviously backing Brexit (the Brexit Party, the Tories, the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)) also fell short of an absolute majority, with a combined score of around 44%. The Labour Party cannot be pinned down to either of these camps, and therefore this result reflects the very indecisive situation in the House of Commons.

A lack of clarity and signs of things to come

The European elections in the UK, including those in Northern Ireland, were held in unique, almost surreal political circumstances. The original date for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union passed a while ago and while a Brexit deal has been agreed by the UK government and the EU, the UK parliament is finding it impossible to endorse the agreement or make a viable counter-proposal, and therefore Brexit has been postponed. However, there is no majority in the House of Commons for a ‘no deal’ hard Brexit either. How things will develop from here is highly uncertain, with the prime minister severely weakened and her government on shaky ground. Talks with the Labour Party aimed at finding a compromise solution were abandoned with no agreement just before the European elections. This unresolved, chaotic situation gave rise to a bewildering state of affairs whereby the UK, whose government had long since planned to leave the European Union, had to participate in the elections to the European Parliament. The European elections in the UK were held on 23 May.

However, the day before, on 22 May, there was another turn of events. Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom resigned from her cabinet position as Leader of the House, explaining her decision in a sharply-worded statement aimed at the prime minister. That same day, rumours increased that Theresa May would resign that week. Candidates to succeed her already started positioning themselves, including former Foreign Secretary and ‘no deal’ Brexit advocate Boris Johnson. And all this was unfolding against the backdrop of opinion polls predicting truly devastating results for the Tory Party in the upcoming European elections. Then, on 24 May, Theresa May announced she would step down as Conservative Party leader on 7 June.
It is now very likely that a general election will be held later this year, probably even before the new scheduled EU withdrawal date of 31 October.

While the result of a ‘first-past-the-post’ general election is likely to be very different from the European elections, this fact could actually make a difficult situation even worse, because under this system, third- or fourth-placed parties are liable to experience very crushing defeats that far exceed their percentage losses. Thus, for the Conservatives, who found themselves pushed into fifth place in the European Parliament elections, how they perform in a general election could determine their very survival. While things look slightly better for Labour, who came third in the European elections, they too are in an alarming position. Therefore, if a general election were to be held in the near future and the Brexit issue were still unresolved, it could spell disaster for both major parties and completely transform the UK’s political landscape. This prospect is unlikely to calm the massively polarised and highly charged atmosphere currently prevailing in all the UK’s political camps.

Revenge from both sides and Labour`s dilemma

In a trend which may well be repeated in future elections, these European polls saw hard Brexiteers exact revenge on the Tories, who are now fighting for survival. But Labour too is being severely punished. Given the massive escalation of this one issue, which is dominating UK politics to the exclusion of almost everything else, and the country’s extreme polarisation on this subject, many voters are favouring clear, unequivocal options. Those voting for the Brexit Party want out fast, even without a deal and with no further negotiations. A vote for the Remain parties (Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Féin) indicates support for withdrawing Article 50 and remaining in the EU, and a willingness to confirm this through a second referendum.

This situation poses a twofold dilemma for the Labour Party. Opinion polls and also resolutions passed by the party show that the majority of its members and supporters are against Brexit, but it also has a significant number of Brexiteers in its ranks. The signals sent out by the leadership have tried to satisfy both the Remainer and the Brexiteer camps but have ended up pleasing neither. The party’s indecisiveness and ambiguity are annoying and irritating its supporters and doing it huge damage. At the same time, however, Labour is also the main opposition party in the House of Commons. Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the opposition and prospective prime minister if the party were to win a general election. In a de facto two-party system, things soon become difficult and indeed dangerous for the official opposition when they cannot come up with a solid counter-position to the government’s flagship project.

So if the Labour leadership wants to maintain its ambiguous position on this now all-important issue, it has to hope that further elections in the UK remain a long way off. As things stand and if they keep to their current stance, Labour are unlikely to win a general election until the Brexit issue is settled one way or the other. However, it is doubtful whether they will be granted this luxury.

by Andreas Thomsen

Originally published on 6 June 2019 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.