A public briefing by Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre this morning set out some of the issues around the forthcoming European Elections in Wales. With a little more than two weeks to go until polling day, it emphasised the uncertainties around this election that most people expected would not happen in the UK, but also set out some of the challenges that the main parties will face. For most of them, the messages were far from comfortable. Moreover, there emerged some key messages for those of us who wish to remain in the EU, and are looking to a confirmatory referendum on any deal.
Setting the scene, the panel of Professor Roger Awan-Scully, Professor Laura McAllister and Jac Larner sought to indicate what was known and unknown around this unexpected election.
The general trends in European Elections – in both the UK and elsewhere in Europe – has been declining turnouts and increasing support for populist parties, especially of the right; with specifically European issues being less salient than domestic discontents. European election campaigns have been fragmented across Member States, while even the selection of lead candidates – Spitzencandidaten – from the main groups, with the lead candidate from the largest group being expected to take up the Presidency of the Commission, has done little to create any sense of public identity with the blocs in the European Parliament;
However, it was clear that, for once, European issues would take centre-stage in these elections in the UK, with opinion increasingly polarised between the remain and leave camps. Not only were the main parties unprepared for this campaign, but campaigning is particularly difficult in European elections because of the closed list system – which minimises the role of personalities – and because of the size of the electoral regions, which means that there is little scope for local issues to play a part.
Against this background, the polling evidence demonstrates a number of trends. On UK-wide polling there is a clear view that Brexit is being handled badly – with UK politicians taking the blame (interestingly there is very little support for the view argued by some Brexiters that Brussels is being obstructive or punitive – the fault is seen as home-grown, divided between the Government and MPs). There is no public confidence in either main party leader; Theresa May’s ratings are terrible but Jeremy Corbyn’s are worse – as Professor Awan-Scully pointed out in an aside, one of his colleagues has noted that Corbyn is actually less popular than the poll tax was at the time of the 1990 riot. There was no evidence that Labour would benefit from the Tories’ unpopularity.
In terms of the remain versus leave debate, Wales was consistent with the rest of the UK insofar as remain now held a small lead in the polls – but the shift was not large. Moreover, there was substantial evidence that positions had hardened. There had been a long-term decline in identification with Party political labels – but it now appeared that loyalty to one or other side in the debate was now firmer than party identity.
Comparing the Ipsos-Mori index of importance of political issues between 2014 – just before the last EU elections – and today showed a huge shift. In 2014, the economy and immigration were the most important issues among respondents; now it was overwhelmingly Brexit, with the NHS second and both the economy and immigration a long way down the list (although I did wonder about the extent to which views on Brexit had become a proxy for immigration, given the role that immigration played in the 2016 referendum campaign).
Polling on the state of the parties needed heavy caveats at a time of political volatility at a time when Party identification is unprecedentedly weak – at the lowest level, in fact, since the British Election Survey was started in 1964 – and when new political parties are arriving on the scene. The most recent Wales opinion poll, taken in April, showed Labour in the lead with the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru fighting closely for second place. But that predated the English local elections and the surge in support for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party in the UK polls. And Conservative support appeared vulnerable to losses to the Brexit party; squeezed both by a tendency of Tory supporters to stay at home in all but General Elections, and deep levels of dissatisfaction at Theresa May’s failure to deliver Brexit. It seemed clear that a party that could garner the Eurosceptic vote would do well; while the pro-Europe vote could divide between several parties, in the context of an electoral system, the D’Hondt system, that rewarded larger parties. These would be challenging elections both for Welsh Labour – their first under Mark Drakeford’s leadership , who could end up taking the political hit for Westminster Labour’s vacillations and Corbyn’s massive unpopularity – and for Plaid Cymru, pitching for Labour’s pro-Remain votes but with a tendency to under-perform in elections.
All panellists expected a strong performance from the Brexit Party – with its identifiable leader and strong emotional appeal to a strongly-identifying leave vote.
What does this all mean?
So what lessons do I take from this for the elections – in particular as a former Labour Party member whose main political concern is to defeat Brexit and to secure a further public vote in the issue?
There are two principal issues.
The first is that Welsh Labour’s backing of Jeremy Corbyn’s line that the 2016 vote should be respected and that it should work to deliver a better Brexit – is looking like a major tactical error. Most Labour supporters in Wales voted remain in 2016 – even in leave-voting areas – and, given the context of this election and the way in which remain versus leave is defining political loyalties, that looks like a recipe for haemorrhaging votes. Moreover, Mark Drakeford’s implicit abandonment of the “clear red water” policy in favour of an explicitly close alignment with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership looks likely to exacerbate this problem further. Put bluntly, many Labour supporters – especially those who have been tearing up their membership cards in their thousands, not least over Corbyn’s claim that the English local elections were a mandate to get on with Brexit – see Corbyn as part of the problem, not the solution. In my view, all the indications are that Labour – which has come first in every election bar one in Wales since 1918 – could be heading for a very bad election result, and one that will owe much to Welsh Labour’s abandonment of the clear red water strategy.
Second, the D’Hondt system exacerbates the fundamental problem for remainer parties in Wales – that its vote is split between a number of parties but, as a crude rule of thumb, a party needs 15% to get a single seat and probably twice that to win two of Wales’ four seats. If we are serious about sending a remain message – or indeed about standing up to Farage in this election – tactical voting is a must. And, for good or ill, the remain party in pole position in this election is Plaid Cymru. Moreover, there is no evidence that Change UK will have any real impact in Wales; in particular since it looks very much like a party of insiders that represents the things that Wales’ leavers voted against. There is of course a huge irony in the suggestion that the only way to stop Brexit nationalism is to vote for an explicitly nationalist party. In the absence of any formal pacts, and unless there are some very dramatic political changes in the two weeks before polling day it seems that the only way to ensure that the Leave vote has the greatest impact in Wales is to vote for the remain party that already has a seat in the Parliament.
The panel’s (highly speculative) view was that Labour, Plaid and the Brexit Party would each take one of Wales’ three seats; the battle for the fourth was the one that mattered. There was a real feeling that the Brexit Party could take this, if they lived up to the hype. With the Conservative vote likely to be squeezed and Labour largely being about defending its Westminster line, the battle for that fourth seat could be between the Brexit Party and Plaid; Labour remainers, Liberal Democrats and Greens will need to think very carefully before casting their vote, and ask themselves whether they are really prepared to risk gifting victory to Farage.