The first thing to remember about the European Parliament elections is that it is not on the same franchise as general elections – or indeed the EU referendum. Crucially, and in contrast to the referendum, EU citizens resident in the UK can vote in these elections. To do so, they must fill out a form to show they want to cast their ballot in the UK and not in their home country. That form needs to have been returned to their local authority by 7 May.
In general elections, the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system means most people live in constituencies where the result is pretty much a given before the voting starts. The European Parliament elections are on a more proportional system. In England, Scotland and Wales they are on the d’Hondt system where people choose one party and then the seats are divided up according to vote share, while the Single Transferable Vote system is used in Northern Ireland. That is why these elections have proved fertile ground for parties which have traditionally done badly in FPTP – like the Greens and UKIP – even though the system is not as good for small parties as in countries where elections are on a whole country rather than regional basis.
Voters in the election will need to think carefully about what message they want to send.
The local election results were either evidence that voters just want to get on with Brexit and are punishing the major parties for their hopelessness in delivering it and/or a sign of a decisive rejection of Brexit with big gains on the night for the Lib Dems and Greens. The reaction to the vote has been a very clear example of confirmation bias – as people interpret results to support their already held position – in action.
The European Parliament elections may give a clearer result. The Brexit Party, which did not stand in the local elections, will be the obvious vehicle of choice for those who want to send a clear “get out” message to politicians. Second referendum supporters will be able to choose from an array of parties, all of whom will say that a vote for them is a vote to put the question of EU membership back to the public. What will be less clear is what a vote for either the Conservatives or Labour means. Unlike in the local elections, this time Labour will have to face its electorate in London.
It is fair to say not every voter delves into the manifestos of their political parties ahead of elections, not least for past European Parliament elections in the UK. But this year the production of a manifesto represents a headache for the major parties – as it could push them to say more on Brexit and the EU than they’ve had to in the past – and a challenge to the smaller parties too.
There will be a temptation to focus solely on Brexit and to put forward proposals which set out how, or whether, the UK should leave the EU. Labour has already been through a tortuous process to agree its wording on a second referendum. But there will also be pressure on parties to set out what they want their MEPs to achieve in the European Parliament – particularly for those groups that hope the UK stays in the EU and MEPs serve a full term. Change UK, for example, might try and set out what it means by its stated ambition to reform the EU from the inside.
Some parties may even opt to avoid manifestos altogether. The Conservative Party might find it difficult to agree more than 100 words on the issue that has caused them so many problems for so long. The Brexit Party might decide that simplicity is key and that their name says it all.
As it stands, the UK MEPs will affect the arithmetic in the European Parliament. Any Labour MEPs will add to the ranks of the socialist group of MEPs in the European Parliament. This could possibly affect the result of the “Spitzenkandidat process”, which implies that the next European Commission president is the nominee of the biggest European Parliament grouping. Conservative MEPs, however, will not add to the European People’s Party ranks as they no longer form part of that bloc. The Liberal Democrats and Greens are both part of other blocs, while Change UK has refused to specify which bloc (if any) its MEPs would join.
Beyond that, the atmospherics of the European Parliament may matter. A noisy set of Brexit Party MEPs may make a degree of common cause with other Eurosceptic populists in the European Parliament – for example from Italy – and could try to make life difficult over appointing the new Commission. That could have a real-world effect – if the UK comes back in October seeking yet another extension to the Brexit deadline, the behaviour of its MEPs could toughen opposition to that request. Indeed, that is likely to be precisely the outcome those MEPs want.