The ghost of European elections future

Once a month we hand over to Alan Collins from Medway Elects who digs into the Medway electoral data to try to tell us what it all means. This month we sent him the fun task of looking at data from previous European elections..

Just when you thought it was safe to open the mail without fearing a party political begging letter from the [insert name here] party, fresh off the close of #MedwayElects19, you are now likely to instead be bombarded with campaign literature for the elections no one gives a fig about – and if the politicians in Westminster had pulled their fingers out (or something) wouldn’t be taking place.

So in the spirit of getting everyone excited for #MedwayElects19version2 (other hashtags are available), Jennings and Keevil have pulled me out of data analysis retirement to look at the ghost of European elections past.

Strap in!

How Medway Votes

It is, perhaps, no small irony that our elections to that most undemocratic of institutions, the EU, are the most democratically representative elections that we in Medway participate(d) in on a regular basis. For elections to Medway Council and the UK Parliament, we use the first past the post voting system, where the electoral map is divided into wards (for Medway Council) and constituencies (for the UK Parliament), and the candidate (or candidates for multi-member wards) with the most votes win.

Under first past the post, a minority of votes can provide a single party with a majority in the chamber, while a significant proportion of voters are left completely unrepresented. For example, on 2 May, the Conservatives won 60% of the seats on Medway Council with just 34% of the votes, and Labour, while falling short of hopes and expectations, secured their largest number of seats on the Council since 2000, taking 36% of the chamber with just 27% of the votes. The Independents managed to secure two seats in one ward, giving them 4% of the chamber despite polling more than double that figure across Medway. UKIP, Green, Liberal Democrat, Christian Peoples Alliance and Animal Welfare Party voters, on the other hand, were left without any representation at all on the Council, despite accounting for 30% of the votes.

Had the same number of votes been cast for each party, but the same voting system we use for European Parliament elections been applied instead, the Conservatives would have been reduced to 20 seats and Labour to 15, while the Independents would have seen their number grow to 5. The smaller parties would also have representation in the chamber, with UKIP taking 9 seats, the Green Party 4 and the Liberal Democrats 2. Only the Christian People’s Alliance and Animal Welfare Party would have been left out in the cold, meaning that all but 1% of voters were represented (and represented proportionately) on the Council. Of course, a direct comparison is unfair, as first past the post leads to tactical voting, not all voters could vote for all parties (because only the Conservatives, Labour and UKIP stood candidates in all wards), some votes would have been for individual candidates rather than their party, etc., but the basic fact remains: first past the post is inherently unrepresentative. Whether or not it is fair, on the other hand, is a matter of opinion.

When we vote for Kent’s Police and Crime Commissioner, we don’t use first past the post, we use a method called the alternative vote. At the moment. Because the Conservatives’ manifesto in 2017 included a pledge to switch the voting system for PCCs to first past the post, but they’ve been a little too preoccupied with something else to implement it (although that hasn’t stopped them from trying to push through a grotesquely disproportionate increase in Probate Registry fees, says I with my totally impartial probate practitioner’s hat on). But I digress!

Under the alternative vote, we actually get two votes: a first preference and a second preference. Once all the first preference votes have been counted, if a candidate has more than 50% of the votes, they are declared the winner. If no candidate has more than 50% of the votes, all but the two candidates with the highest number of votes are eliminated, and their second preference votes are added to the remaining two candidates, if applicable. The candidate with the highest number of votes is declared the winner.

Alternative vote is not a representative form of voting, indeed some analyses before the AV referendum in 2011 suggested results could be even less representative than under first past the post, but it does mean successful candidates require a wider support base, meaning more votes matter than under first past the post, and is an ideal way of voting for a single post such as an elected mayor or PCC.

Our elections to the European Parliament, however, take place under a form of proportional representation, using closed party lists. Each party standing puts together a list of candidates using their own internal process, and we vote for a single party. Once all the votes are counted in our constituency (the South East of England), seats are allocated to parties using a calculation known as the D’Hondt method. Wikipedia explains this calculation in detail, certainly better than I could, but in practice this means that seats are shared between the parties roughly in proportion to the number of votes they receive. I’ll be explaining how this worked for each election below.

In short, elections to the European Parliament are representative. I mean, I’m not for one second suggesting the democracy of the EU is a shining example (hint: it isn’t, for a whole host of reasons which fall even further outside the remit of this article than the preceding 500 words), but proportional representation is perhaps one of the greatest gifts our membership of the EU has given our own democracy, meaning most votes cast in European elections actually count towards the result. But it wasn’t always thus.

Originally, Great Britain (excluding Northern Ireland, which has always elected its MEPs by STV) was split into 78 single-member constituencies (increasing to 84 in 1994), in which MEPs were elected under the first past the post system. From the first election in 1979, Medway formed part of the Kent West constituency, and this is where our story (finally) starts…

Elections Under First Past The Post

The first election to the European Parliament took place on 7 June 1979. In Kent West, the Conservatives, Labour and Liberals all stood candidates, with the Conservatives’ Ben Patterson winning the seat with 60.8% of the vote. Labour came second with 24.8% and the Liberals third with 14.5%.

Patterson would go on to hold the seat until 1994, closely following the pattern shown in national elections of the time. In 1984, he obtained 48.9% of the vote, with Labour taking 29.1%, the Liberals 19.1% and the Ecology Party 2.9%.

Five years later in 1989, Patterson’s share of the vote dropped again, this time to 43.4% of the vote, while Labour marginally increased their vote share to 30.7%. If long-standing political observers got a touch of déjà vu when the Green Party polled higher than the Liberal Democrats on 2 May, it may have been because the Green Party took an impressive 17.4% of the vote in Kent West in 1989, with the Social and Liberal Democrats coming in last on 8.5%.

Patterson battled valiantly to save his seat in 1994 (I’m guessing), but ultimately lost to Labour’s Peter Skinner, who took 41% of the votes. Patterson’s vote share dropped to 32.1%, while the Liberal Democrats returned to third place with 17.9%. Fourth place was taken by a certain Craig Mackinlay, standing for a new mob called UKIP and claiming 5.2%, while the Green Party were relegated to fifth with 3% of the vote and the Natural Law Party left everyone wondering why they even bothered when they came last with less than 1%.

Fun fact: two of the Kent West candidates in 1994 would later appear in court charged with criminal offences. Mackinlay was, of course, cleared of falsifying his 2015 election expenses earlier this year, but Skinner was found guilty of fraudulently claiming around £100,000 in expenses during his time as an MEP, and sentenced to four years in prison.

While the UK was happily electing its MEPs under first past the post, the rest of Europe, the majority of whom adopt a proportional system of voting in domestic elections, were seeking to create a universal method of electing MEPs. Decision 2002/772/EC, Euratom, which entered into force on 1 April 2004, ultimately allowed member states to make their own electoral arrangements, subject to common provisions laid down by the EU. Those common provisions were, essentially, that the elections should be free and secret, conducted under universal suffrage and that proportional representation by either a list system or single transferable vote be applied. Whilst the UK, with its eternal fascination with unrepresentative election results, would ordinarily have been expected to kick up a fuss (as it had over so many other issues), we had, in fact, already pre-empted this decision and introduced closed list proportional representative for elections to the European Parliament in 1999.

Elections Under Proportional Representation

The first proportional election took place on 10 June 1999. In that election, 11 parties battled for the eleven seats on offer. In total, five incumbent MEPs from the previous constituencies were re-elected under their party’s list. The Conservatives came out on top with 44.4% of the vote and saw five of their candidates elected, taking 45% of the seats. Labour came second with 19.6% and the Liberal Democrats third with 15.3%, each taking two, or 18%, of the seats. Some upstarts called UKIP came fourth with 9.7% of the vote while the Green Party came fifth with 7.4% of the vote, and each of those parties took 1, or 9%, of the seats. The also-rans achieved just 3.5% of the vote and were awarded diddly squat between them.

Notable successful candidates include the aforementioned Skinner, Chris Huhne of the Liberal Democrats (later convicted and imprisoned for eight months for perverting the course of justice), Caroline Lucas (the Green Party’s only MP in Westminster), and some chap called Nigel Farage. I think he’s meant to be important for some reason.

Fast-forward five years and in 2004, 12 parties were battling it out for nine seats, together with one independent. Again, the Conservatives topped the poll, but with a much reduced 35.2%, taking four of the seats (44% for those keeping a tally of how proportional this proportional system is). Those upstarts in UKIP, though, came second on 19.5%, with the Liberal Democrats in third place on 15.3%, each taking two (22%) of the seats. Labour were relegated to fourth position on 13.7% and the Green Party in fifth on 7.9%, each taking one seat (11%) apiece. The also-rans achieved 8.4% of the vote between them, but none came close to sufficient votes to send one of their candidates to Brussels.

The Conservatives saw one of their sitting MEPs lose their seat, although Roy Perry had gone from second place in their list in 1999 to fifth in 2004, so they clearly thought he would be a big loss to their group in Brussels, while Labour’s Mark Watts, taking second spot on their list again, lost his seat due to the electorate abandoning his party. UKIP’s new MEP, Ashley Mote, was suspended by the party just one month into his term due to an investigation into his expenses. The anti-sleaze campaigner was jailed in 2007 for fraudulently claiming £67,000 in benefits, but as his jail term was for less than one year, he got to keep his seat in Brussels until the end of his term. He was jailed again in 2015 for fraudulently claiming almost £500,000 in expenses from the European Parliament. And people accuse Brussels of playing fast and loose with taxpayers’ cash.

The 2004 election is the first time we get to compare the result across the South East with the result in Medway. And it is fascinating, if you are a political data geek at least. Whilst the Conservatives topped the poll in Medway with 33.4%, only marginally less than their South East result, second place did not fall to UKIP, but to Labour, on 20.6%. UKIP polled third on 20.2%, the Liberal Democrats fourth on 10.3% and the Green Party fifth on 5.6%. Overall, Medway accounted for 52,201 of the 2,207,417 votes cast in the South East of England, or about 2.3%, so while every vote counts in proportional representation, the specific wishes of the residents of our fine towns meant diddly squat in terms of the overall result. Sorry, Labour!

2009 was an extra special European election for one very important reason: it was the first election I ever voted in. They say you always remember your first, unless you’ve been drinking, and while I would never advocate voting under the influence, I would always advocate voting, especially if it’s your first time!

Again the Conservatives topped the poll, keeping a fairly steady 34.8% of the votes and four (40%) of the ten seats available. UKIP again came second with a slightly lower 18.8% of the votes and the Liberal Democrats third with 14.1% of the votes, each taking two (20%) of the seats. Stunningly, or not for a party 12 years into government, Labour were even beaten by the Green Party, who took 11.6% of the vote compared to Labour’s abysmal 8.2%, but with both parties taking one (10%) seat apiece. The also-rans took a slightly higher 12.3% of the vote together, but again, given this was split between 10 parties, it amounted to the square root of practically nothing for all involved.

Whilst keeping hold of her seat, Caroline Lucas would not stay in post for much longer, leaving the European Parliament when she was elected as an MP in 2010. There are no by-elections under list systems, with vacant seats instead being automatically given to the next person on the party’s list, in this case Keith Taylor. UKIP were hoping for better luck in their second candidate Marta Andreasen, and while she did do better than Mote in the not committing serious criminal offences involving taxpayers’ money stakes, she also didn’t see out her five-year term as a UKIP MEP, defecting to the Conservatives in February 2013. Nigel Farage must have started to feel quite lonely as the only UKIP MEP for the South East for the majority of his time in the European Parliament.

Again, the Medway vote was slightly different to the South East-wide vote, although the Conservatives still took 31% and UKIP came second with a higher-than-average 21.5%. Labour, though, managed to come third with 14.7%, ahead of the Liberal Democrats on 9.1%. The big difference between Medway and the South East as a whole, however, was the face that more people in Medway voted for the BNP, who didn’t see an MEP elected in our region, than the Green Party, by 7.9% to 7.2%. Medway accounted for 59,674 of the 2,334,858 votes cast in the South East, or 2.5%, meaning its opinions were drowned out by the overall regional picture. Given the towns’ preference to the BNP over the Greens, though, some might suggest that, in this case, that might not have been the worst outcome in the world.

The last elections to the European Parliament were in 2014, and oh how it turned the political world upside down! That marginal group of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, commonly known as UKIP, topped the poll with 32.1% of the vote and took four (40%) of the ten seats available. Just behind them on 30.9% of the vote, the Conservatives only won three (30%) of the seats. Labour had by now redeemed itself and taken third place on 14.7%, with the Greens taking fourth on 9.1% and the Liberal Democrats fifth on 8%. Those three parties were rewarded with just one (10%) seat each. The also-rans received just 5% and, again, rien between them.

One sitting MEP was ousted in 2014. Marta Andreasen’s decision to abandon UKIP for the Conservatives backfired electorally, as she was placed fourth on their list and was therefore not re-elected. UKIP’s new entrants were Janice Atkinson, Diane James and Ray Finch. They say that a week is a long time in politics, but five years must be a cataclysmic realignment, because by the end of their parliamentary term this year, none of the four UKIP MEPs were members of UKIP, one of the Conservative MEPs was no longer a member of the Conservatives and Labour’s new MEP Annaliese Dodds left the European Parliament when she was elected to Westminster in 2017, being replaced by second-placed John Howarth. So what happened to the class of 2014? Well, take a deep breath, because 2,800 words in, this is going to take some explaining.

Nigel Farage led UKIP into the 2015 general election and lost in South Thanet to Craig Mackinlay, by now a member of the Conservative Party. He kept his pre-election pledge of resigning as leader of UKIP if he lost, only to “un-resign” a few days later. He led UKIP into the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, and then resigned as leader again, claiming he wanted to get his life back. Diane James was elected as his successor in September 2016, only to mark the Latin phrase “vi coactus” (meaning “under duress”) on the forms accepting her leadership and then quit as party leader after just 18 days, before leaving UKIP and sitting as an independent in November 2016. Farage returned to leading UKIP until James’ successor was found, finally leaving the post for the last time on Paul Nuttall’s election as leader in November 2016. As UKIP shifted to the right under the leadership of Gerard Batten, Farage claimed he could no longer be a member of the party he helped to found and quit the party in December 2018. He has since formed the Brexit Party and will be standing as the first name on their list for the South East in this month’s European election. Finch resigned from UKIP last month and joined the Brexit Party, although he is not standing for re-election, with James also announcing she had joined the Brexit party, and also not standing for re-election. Janice Atkinson, meanwhile, was due to be UKIP’s candidate for Folkestone and Hythe in the 2015 general election but was withdrawn and expelled from the party for “bringing the party into disrepute” early in 2015. Although she was cleared by the police, she was investigated over an apparently fraudulent expenses claim and her chief of staff was convicted and handed a suspended jail sentence (UKIP again proving its excellent track record of standing up for honesty and decency against a corrupt regime in Brussels).

Before you take another breath, I mentioned a Conservative MEP leaving the party. I am, of course, referring to Richard Ashworth, who had appeared on the Conservative Party list for every election since 1999 and been an MEP since 2004. His last speech to the European Parliament was a near-emotional glowing review of, and warning to, the EU. Last month, he was announced to be standing for Change UK/The Independent Group/For Change/Whatever they decide to call themselves this week, as the first candidate on their regional list for the South East.

So to Medway (no, I haven’t forgotten) and the order in which the parties polled in the South East was, for once, followed in Medway, but with markedly different results. UKIP achieved a staggering 41.9% in Medway (and later that year elected a UKIP MP in Rochester & Strood, so one can’t be too surprised by their level of support in the towns), while the Conservatives were relegated to just 23.1%. The 19.2% vote for Labour was higher than the South East average, while the Greens were lower on 5.7% and the Liberal Democrats significantly lower on 3.7%. Overall, Medway accounted for 65,141 of the 2,338,050 votes cast in the South East, or 2.8%, meaning our influence over the South East result had grown an impressive 0.5% in 10 years. We’re on the up, guys!

How Medway will vote next week, I honestly could not tell you. I’ve not put together a data projection model because when it became clear we would be holding these elections, I was deeply too focused on my own failed election campaign in Watling to think about anything else. In fact, aside from this article, I am basically sitting this election out, as I am in desperate need of a break from campaigning. I’ve even turned down the opportunity to be at the count, which is a first for me, as I will not be in Medway while it’s taking place. Medway Elects will have the result at some point after it’s announced, dependent upon a stable Internet connection, but it’s safe to say that Jennings & Keevil will have it here or on Twitter first.

Turnout Troubles

Just as a short postscript, because I know how much you love data and because I’m only writing one article about the past eight elections to the European Parliament, the final question must surely be this: if every vote matters, does that mean that more people make an effort to go out and vote in European elections? In short, no. Turnout to the European elections is, in fact, on a par with, and sometimes less than, turnout at local elections.

For Kent West, the turnout was 32.9% in 1979, 30.8% in 1984, 33.4% in 1989 and 37.3% in 1994. For the South East (as a whole), the turnout was 24.7% in 1999, 36.5% in 2004, 37.5% in 2009 and 36.5% in 2014. In Medway, the turnout was 32.9% in 2009 and 33.7% in 2014. That is hardly an inspiring endorsement of European democracy.

The reasons for this are many, and range from people not feeling their vote really changes anything (after all, we in the South East are voting for just 10 of 750 MEPs) and a general lack of interest. There has also been a distinct lack of information about what MEPs actually do (and don’t do), while Europe has often been a convenient scapegoat for domestic politicians when they are about to do something unpopular. But this is not just a UK problem. The overall turnout in the UK in 2014 was 35.6%, while across Europe as a whole it was 42.5%. Getting Europeans interested in European democracy is a European problem, a problem we may not share again if the Brexit omnishambles is resolved before the next elections in 2024.

Will turnout be higher this year? Well, a number of people have publicly expressed their anger that elections are taking place to a body we should have left in March and are publicly declaring their intention to abstain. On the other hand, some of those who are angry are determined to make it to the polling station to vote for the Brexit Party and give the establishment another bloody good kicking. On the other side of the argument, there are a considerable number of people who still want the UK to remain in the EU, and will take these elections as an opportunity to express their view by voting for the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green Party or, for some reason, Change UK.

All I know is, after almost 4,000 words on a topic which, as I said at the beginning, few people give a fig about, I’m going back into data analysis retirement until the next general election. Which on the current trajectory could be this autumn.

Alan Collins is the creator of Medway Elects, which is committed to building a complete electoral history for Medway.

One Reply to “The ghost of European elections future”

  1. If the writer could have stuck to facts and not let his obvious prejudice towards the EU get in the way it might have been an interesting read. As it is I gave up halfway through.

    I’m pleased that the UK is participating in the EU Parliament election and I’m hopeful for many more.

    It is the only democratic exercise where my vote really counts and I do give more than ‘a fig’.

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