Search online for the results of the 2019 European Elections and it won’t be hard to find various articles suggesting Nigel Farage led a rampant Brexit Party to a landslide victory, in what can only show strong public support for a hard Brexit. However, search a little further and it also won’t be too difficult to find other articles suggesting pro-Remain parties posted a spectacular performance, thereby destroying any claims to public support for a hard Brexit. The reality, of course, is somewhere in the middle and this article will take you through the results… If you can bear with a few important statistics!
The headline figure that has grabbed the most attention is that The Brexit Party won by far the greatest number of seats of any UK political party (29) and, as one would expect, they also won the popular vote, taking in around 31% of all ballots cast. However, equally importantly, and what most people may have missed, was that Gerard Batten’s UKIP lost every one of their previous 24 MEP seats, and a similar percentage of votes cast, compared to in 2014.
See, there is somewhat of a trick going on here and it is important to recognise. Nigel Farage created a new party for these elections and as such their total number of seats is +29 from in 2014 when they didn’t exist, obviously. But that really doesn’t tell the whole story. In 2014 Nigel Farage was the leader of UKIP and lets be honest, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where the 24% of votes that previously went to UKIP have gone in 2019. So, take the 31.6% of the Brexit Party vote, subtract 24.2% who, in reality have not changed their vote, and you have a total growth of 7.4% for Nigel Farage. Or, 5 seats. Not that impressive when you break it down, especially considering everything that has happened in the last five years.
So, given the above we have a sum total 34.9% support for what one would call a hard-Brexit (Brexit Party + UKIP). Notably, after hearing of these results Nigel Farage began calling for his party to have a seat at the negotiating table, claiming the results had shown a clear mandate for a no-deal Brexit. However, it doesn’t take a mathematical wizard to conclude that 34.9% is indeed less than the 50% required for a majority. Even if one was to include the Conservative vote as one supporting Brexit in the abstract, that would only bring the total up to 44%, still below the 50% required for a majority. Plus, that 44% is still far from a mandate for a hard Brexit as one would assume Conservative voters would have cast their ballots for the Brexit Party or UKIP, if that was their belief.
That being said, there was one aspect where the Brexit Party truly did well and that was by cornering the Brexit vote. Disillusioned by the Tories, and viewing UKIP as no longer a viable option the vast majority of Brexit voters found their perfect fit in the Brexit Party. The same could not be said, about pro-Remain voters who could realistically have chosen between any of the Liberal Democrats, Green Party, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Change UK and a good few also likely voted Labour.
This means that if one is to treat the European Elections as a proxy for a second referendum, as I previously argued they always would be used, then one has to add up the votes for all of the Remain parties. Doing so, as shown above, gives a total support of 40.4% for the pro-Remain parties, a full 5.5 percentage points ahead of the hard Brexit vote. Now, of course, you could and indeed should point to the 23.2% of votes for the Conservatives and Labour and question which side they would fall on but unfortunately, until we get an actual People’s Vote it is difficult to say.
However, what one can say with certainty is that the vote for the Liberal Democrats grew by 13.4%, as they surged to become the second most popular party. One can also say with certainly that the vote for the Green Party grew by 4.2%, as they overtook the Conservatives to become the fourth most popular party in the UK. To be sure, these results should not be overlooked or diminished, and combined with the recent council elections they give good reason for both parties to be optimistic about the future.
However, there are limits to the conclusions that can be borne of this data with regard to Brexit for two good reasons. First, the turnout was only 36.7%, hardly representative of the whole electorate. Second, neither the Remain, nor Brexit camps can truly lay claim to the 24.2% of the vote for Labour and the Conservatives and that gives an uncomfortably large degree of uncertainty for both sides. At best one could that 51.5% of voters have rejected a no-deal Brexit, (as Labour have previously outlined that they “will reject ‘no deal’ as a viable option,”) but one also cannot comfortably say that all of those Labour voters are against Brexit in general.
So, where do we go from here? Well, if one is to treat the European Elections as a proxy second referendum then the results are inconclusive. As usual with Brexit Britain many options were ‘ruled out’ by the electorate but none showed sufficient support to claim a full mandate. However, there is a way to solve the two problems outlined above and that is to hold a People’s Vote. Undoubtably, turnout would be higher and it would sort the 24.2% of uncertainty into their true camps.
Of course politicians and pundits can run opinion polls, hold debates and run proxy referendums on the issue for years, but until a clear choice is presented to the electorate the results will only come up as more indecisive every time. In all honesty the only lessons there truly are from the European Elections is that if someone is claiming they provided a clear mandate for a given position on Brexit they are misrepresenting the facts. There is no majority for Remain, there is no majority for a hard Brexit and there is certainly no majority for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.
By now we are coming up on three years since the Brexit referendum in 2016. In those three years both David Cameron and Theresa May have resigned as Prime Minister, and both David Davis and Dominic Raab have resigned as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. We have also had a snap general election, which reduced the Conservative majority, and now European elections. Additionally parliament has voted Theresa May’s Withdrawal Bill down multiple times in record-breaking numbers, and countless ministers have resigned in protest at various stages throughout this process. Given all of the above it really should not be surprising that the Brexit vote has been polarised and the two parties with the least clear cut positions have suffered massively.
However, given all of the above it should also be unrealistic to expect public opinion to have remained unchanged. Unfortunately as of right now I cannot be sure as to how it has changed, nor can I be entirely sure which side has benefitted the most. As such there is no nice conclusion I can write here to sum up the European elections with regards to Brexit. But, there is a suggestion I can make: Politicians, please stop using proxy referendums and hold a People’s Vote if you truly want to give the government a mandate for any given Brexit policy.