When Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, nobody thought we would participate again in European Parliament elections. Fearing a massacre, the government is doing what it can to avoid them. Nevertheless, without the Brexit deadlock suddenly being broken, participation on May 23rd is inevitable. Political betting sites are already pricing it up.
When these elections were last held in 2014, the story was all about Nigel Farage as UKIP stunned the major parties, winning most votes and seats with 27%, and kickstarted the process that would lead to Brexit.
Within months, the insurgents had won two by-elections with defecting Tory MPs, leaving David Cameron little choice but to commit to a referendum in his 2015 manifesto.
Five years on, British politics is in chaos and once again, Farage takes centre stage. Having left UKIP, his new Brexit Party are odds-on to win most seats at a best-priced 8/11 with Coral. If pulling it off, the implications for Brexit and the party system are profound.
Five polls have been published in the past three weeks. The first four showed Labour – who were initially placed as 4/7 favourites to secure the most UK seats - leading by between 6% and 15% but the most recent had Brexit Party rising rapidly to 27%, leading by 5%. That explains the betting but can we trust one poll?
It is no surprise that Brexit has suddenly surged as voters realise such an option exists. Farage is the face of Euroscepticism and will be omnipresent in the media. His rallies will be better attended than the rest and his Brexit betrayal message will cut through with roughly half the country.
Sustaining that 27% is likely. In the latest poll, one in four Leave voters support either Conservative or Labour. UKIP are taking one in eight, which I expect to fall because surely some voters yet to realise Farage has a different party now.
Getting beyond 30% is possible but a considerable ask. Even at their peak, UKIP’s ceiling was low. In South Thanet - selected as his ideal target - Farage fell short of 33% in the 2015 general election. He was marmite with voters and remains so according to Yougov’s approval ratings. Only 24% are positive compared to 56% negative.
That implies he would still struggle to win a Westminster seat on first past the post - opponents would coalesce around the party best placed to beat him. Likewise his new party’s success depends on whether Remainers can unite.
When weighing up these polls, consider the very different context compared to 2014. Differential turnout is always the scourge of pollsters and explains pretty much every recent political betting upsets.
Much has changed since the referendum. The effect of 2016 - which also saw Donald Trump elected - was a liberal backlash with turnout amongst younger and minority voters rising considerably. In that Yougov poll, more Remainers definitely intend to vote and, notably, 18% of Leavers said they definitely won’t. I expect a much more Remainer electorate than we’ve ever seen for EU elections.
Farage remains a toxic figure and will prompt a backlash. The question is whether Remain parties can avoid a split that would hand their enemy victory. The three ‘pure’ Remain parties - Lib Dems, Greens and Change UK - are polling at a combined 25%.
The latter will certainly hope to improve as name recognition grows but the only party who can stop Farage is Labour. Five of the seven polls to date - everyone except Yougov - had Labour on at least 29%. Hanbury Strategy even recorded an improbable 38%. Could the market be over-reacting to the results of one pollster? It is something to take into account when considering your political betting strategy.
Labour finished second on 24% in 2014. Since then under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, they have become a much more effective campaigning machine. The party under Ed Miliband was hollowed out - now it is the biggest in Western Europe. Momentum, allied to the unions and their campaigning infrastructure, are highly effective. Whether the 2017 general election or last year’s locals, Labour got their vote out better than previously.
Right now, Labour activists are buoyed at the opportunity to give the Tories a beating. Winning these elections would prompt much talk of a Corbyn government-in-waiting. Even with an uncommitted position on Brexit, they’re supported by a third of Remainers.
In theory, some of that third could defect to a purer Remain alternative, but I’m sceptical. In polls conducted after the 2017 election, around a sixth of Labour voters rated Brexit as the number one issue compared to Tories.
They are simply less driven by this particular dividing line. Ultra-Remainers have already largely switched. 21% of 2017 Labour voters support either the Greens or Change UK.
I will be surprised if Labour don’t achieve at least 25% and see greater upwards potential. They have shed plenty by failing to support a so-called Peoples Vote. There is a high chance that will change in the weeks ahead, as cross-party talks collapse and Theresa May – who has been tipped at 6/1 to leave the Prime Minister role in 2020 - fails yet again to get her deal through parliament.
This is the logical conclusion of their shrewdly fudged motion at last year’s conference, that left ‘all options on the table’. Having supported a referendum in the recent indicative votes, Labour have laid the ground to switch. If Corbyn fails to do so, there will be a backlash from members. He won’t risk it.
There are several weeks of campaigning in which much could change but, for now, I rate Labour the value at 6/5 with Paddy Power. I expect a policy shift on the referendum that propels their vote share beyond 30%.
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