On Thursday more than three million voters across the East Midlands will be electing five Members of the European Parliament, in a poll which should provide an early indication of support in advance of next year’s general. In reality only around a third of that number are likely to vote and all of the main parties would be wise not to draw too many conclusions from the outcome. Members of the European Parliament (MEP) are elected using a proportional electoral system which distributes power to a wider range of parties than in national elections in the UK. Moreover, MEPs are elected in large constituencies each returning several members. In place of the 650 constituencies which each elect one MP in British general elections, Britain will elect 73 MEPs, from 12 constituencies. The East Midlands region which comprises the counties of Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Rutland will elect five members to represent the whole region.
The size of constituencies in European elections, and the potential for fluctuating turnout can make it difficult to predict the results. In the East Midlands strong support for the Conservatives in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, is balanced by Labour support in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, while there are significant pockets of support for the Liberal Democrats, particularly in Leicestershire, and for UKIP in Lincolnshire. However, the multi-member constituencies coupled with a proportional voting system means that the spoils tend to be shared between the parties, with the result that there are a wider range of parties representing the UK in the European Parliament than there are at Westminster.
Moreover, one potential consequence of the low turnout is that parties with relatively low levels of public support have been able to make gains in European elections. This is because in elections in which few people vote, those who do vote tend to hold strong views on the subject and as a result elections with lower turnout can favour parties with more extreme views. Despite what the media may suggest, polling indicates that Europe is not an issue about which the majority of the British public have particularly strong views, but it is one about which a minority of voters have very strong opinions, with the result that parties on the extreme end of the political spectrum have been able to make the kind of gains in European elections that they would struggle to repeat at a general election. If British citizens want their representatives in Europe to more accurately represent their views then they should turn-out and vote on Thursday and not leave the way open to parties with strong but minority support.
In the East Midlands in the last European elections in 2009, the Conservatives secured 30% of the vote and two seats, Labour got 17% of the vote and one seat. Although UKIP beat the Liberal Democrats into fourth place, both won one seat each. UKIP gained an extra seat at the expense of the Conservatives, when Roger Helmer defected to UKIP in 2011, and the party will be hoping at the very least to hang onto both seats in the East Midlands. UKIP is currently riding high in national opinion polls which suggest that it will do considerably better than in the last European elections when the party came second. UKIP will be hoping to build on the successes of last year’s County Council elections when they secured 23% of the vote nationally and returned their largest number of councillors, in many places beating the pro-European Liberal Democrats into fourth place. One of the party’s most significant achievements was in Lincolnshire, where UKIP’s share of the vote was second only to the Conservatives, and it became the second largest group on Lincolnshire County Council.
However, UKIP may struggle to improve its position in the East Midlands. UKIP has considerably less support in the rest of the East Midlands than in Lincolnshire. Although the party beat the Liberal Democrats into third place in most places in last year’s county council elections, they have only a handful of county councillors in Leicestershire and Northants and none at all in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. There is an emerging pocket of support in the tiny county of Rutland, where three independent councillors joined UKIP last year, but their allegiance has not been tested at the polls and the number of voters involved is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the European poll. If UKIP are to hold on to two seats in the East Midlands they will need to almost double the share of the vote they received in the last European elections. While national polls suggest a significant increase in support this is still a big leap. Whether UKIP are able to achieve this will be largely dependent on whether large numbers of voters follow Mr Helmer from the Conservatives to UKIP. Mr Helmer who is top of UKIP’s list for the region, is almost certain to be re-elected, but will be hoping to step down shortly afterwards if he can win the Newark by-election in June.
A further problem for UKIP in the East Midlands is the prospect of a split in the Eurosceptic vote. While UKIP is likely to pick up votes from Conservative voters who feel the party needs to be more decisive and united on Europe, UKIP is itself divided in Lincolnshire. Since the high point of last year’s county council elections fractious divisions among the UKIP councillors on Lincolnshire County Council led six UKIP councillors to split from the party. Several members of the breakaway group, including Chris Pain, the former leader of UKIP on Lincolnshire County Council, are standing in the European elections under the banner Independence from Europe. The divisions in Lincolnshire, are to some extent reflected elsewhere in the country where recent reports suggest that almost 10% of UKIP councillors have stepped down since last year. This may lead to UKIP losing support both from voters disillusioned with their performance in office, and also to alternative Eurosceptic parties.
Nevertheless, UKIP may be the only party with anything to celebrate when the results come in. Although the Conservatives secured the largest share of the vote in the East Midlands in the last European elections, with almost twice as many votes as second-placed Labour, the party was in opposition then and facing an unpopular Labour Prime Minister. The Conservatives are losing the most votes to UKIP and the defection of Roger Helmer coupled with the recent resignation of the MP Patrick Mercer have been an embarrassment for the party in the region. Labour, however, have failed to capitalise on their poll lead over the Conservatives and Ed Miliband has perhaps has the most to lose if Labour does not perform well in the European and local elections. The Liberal Democrats have languished in the polls since 2010 and their share of the vote barely got above single figures across the East Midlands in last year’s County Council elections. They will be lucky if they hang on to a seat. Most of the parties, and perhaps most of the public too, will breathe a sigh of relief when these elections are over. Unless of course they live in Newark where campaigning will simply carry on until the by-election in June.