‘Tony Blair’s decision to introduce PR for the 1999 European elections was the springboard for the rise of UKIP, and ultimately for the referendum’
What will the European elections on May 23 mean for the future of British politics? It is, however, not yet certain that these elections — which were never meant to happen — will actually take place. If Theresa May manages to get some version of her EU Withdrawal Agreement through in time they may still be cancelled. She has little chance of winning over the DUP and still less of getting the diehard 29 Eurosceptic holdouts and five ardent Remainer, second referendum supporters on her own benches to back her.
So to stop the elections she only has two options left. She will either need to get Jeremy Corbyn on board, whipping his MPs to back her deal, or she needs make Corbyn look so unreasonable in rejecting it that 30-plus Labour MPs break their whip and back her, regardless of the consequences for their own careers. Either scenario seems unlikely; it is much more likely the European elections will go ahead in the UK.
Tony Blair took the decision to change the electoral system used in the UK for European elections from traditional first-past-the-post to a regional list system of proportional representation. Our 73 MEPs are elected from 11 regional lists for nine English regions and Scotland and Wales; Northern Ireland elects three MEPs on a different system. The change in electoral system has had a profound effect on British politics — indeed, an argument can be made that it eventually led to the Brexit referendum.
Twenty years ago, in the 1999 European elections, the first three UKIP MEPs — including the 35-year-old Nigel Farage — were elected to Brussels. Their support base came from Tory Eurosceptic voters who had become disillusioned with the Conservatives during John Major’s Maastricht battles. Immigration did not feature in UKIP’s propaganda then. The new party obtained only 6.5 per cent of the vote. Under the old first-past-the-post electoral system there would have been zero chance of it winning a single seat.
UKIP’s electoral breakthrough brought it further electoral success. It came third in the 2004 European elections, second in 2009, and top in 2014. The first electoral success gave the party the oxygen of publicity it needed to flourish. And it did not just get oxygen — the newly-elected MEPs had access to the funding and patronage which came with their seats. Loyal party workers could be rewarded with jobs in its Brussels offices and a party base could be built up. Broadcasters had to give the insurgent party airtime.
The 2004 EU enlargement was a necessary prerequisite to both UKIP’s further growth and the rise of withdrawalist sentiment, but it was the bridgehead which UKIP had established in Brussels that helped it exploit these issues. Nigel Farage has himself acknowledged that if it were not for its breakthrough into the European Parliament, UKIP is unlikely ever to have won more than a handful of council seats, and the protest party, like so many before it, would have withered and died.
David Cameron’s 2013 Bloomberg speech committing the Tories to an In/Out referendum was partly motivated by an attempt to stymie the rise of UKIP. If the Conservatives committed to a referendum, or so the thinking went, Eurosceptic voters would feel no need to support another party. This thinking turned out to be spectacularly wrong — UKIP only shot up in domestic general election polling post-Bloomberg.
In backing a referendum, Cameron was also motivated by an attempt to find a way of kicking divisions on the Conservative back benches into the long grass. In 2011 81 Tory MPs had rebelled and backed a referendum; if the party could unite behind a pledge of a referendum at some future point the government could move on to other issues and MPs could stop banging on about Europe — an analysis soon proved wrong. Nevertheless, without the rise of UKIP, facilitated by European election success, it is unlikely that we would have had a referendum.
What the 2019 elections promise to do is give two new insurgent parties the boost UKIP once enjoyed. Farage’s new Brexit Party is likely to hoover up the votes of most hardline Brexiteers and thus do very well. The polls at the time of writing are probably understating the Brexit Party’s support and overstating that of UKIP. Many voters will not yet have twigged that Farage has switched and that UKIP has become obsessed with Islam, attracting a most unsavoury coterie. In any case, UKIP’s own polling showed that Nigel Farage was a much stronger brand than the party itself ever was.
Whether the Brexit Party’s support will be enough to make it a permanent feature of British politics is a more difficult question. The absence of PR in Westminster elections makes matters much trickier for a populist party in the UK than it is in most of Europe. The reason that Britain does not have populist MPs — at least outside the main parties — is much less to do with populism having little appeal in the UK and more to do with our electoral system.
The other insurgents who are being offered a springboard by the elections are Change UK-The Independent Group. These pro-European former Labour and Conservative MPs have had to move faster than they were planning to set up as a formal party — but the European elections are their best hope for a breakthrough and thus to become a fixture in British politics.
The European elections are perfectly timed for these two new forces. It is the one reason why it is still just possible that the Conservatives and Labour might be able to come to a deal over the Withdrawal Agreement — to each avoid electoral calamity.