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European Elections in Wales, 1

Next May will see elections to the European Parliament (EP) across the EU, as has happened every five years since the inaugural polls in 1979. Towards the end of this post, and in a future one, I’ll consider the prospects for 2014. But first it might be of value to look back to what has happened previously. What sort of European elections has Wales experienced so far?

The history of EP elections in Wales divides neatly into two halves. For the first four elections (1979, 1984, 1989 and 1994) Wales, like the rest of mainland Britain, elected its MEPs via a single-member district system, with each constituency combining multiple Westminster ones. Next year’s election will be the fourth (since 1999) where Wales has been designated as one of eleven mainland ‘regions’: people vote for party lists, with seats allocated proportionally to the parties. (Northern Ireland has always been different: from 1979 onwards it has been treated as a single region with three seats allocated via the Single Transferable Vote system).

The inaugural 1979 EP election occurred barely weeks after the Conservatives had won the UK general election under Mrs Thatcher. The buoyant Tories performed strongly across Britain; by contrast, the recently-defeated Labour party struggled. Out of 78 mainland British EP constituencies, the Tories won 60, compared to only 17 for Labour (with the SNP winning one seat in northern Scotland). As in Westminster elections, a non-proportional voting system hampered the Liberals who failed to win representation.

Wales was initially assigned four MEPs, across constituencies representing North Wales, Mid and West Wales, South Wales and South East Wales. In line with the general picture across Britain, the Conservatives performed strongly, coming within five percentage points of Labour in vote share, comfortably winning the North Wales seat and coming quite close also to capturing the Mid and West Wales one. However, Labour held on there and the First Past the Post system ensured that it ultimate won three quarters of Welsh seats on barely two-fifths of the vote.

1979 European Election, Wales

PARTY

VOTES

% SHARE

SEATS

Labour

294,978

41.5

3

Conservative

259,729

36.6

1

Plaid Cymru

83,399

11.7

0

Liberal

67,962

9.6

0

Others

4,008

0.6

0

 

The next European election came in 1984. Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives remained dominant in British politics, only a year after their crushing general election victory. Though Labour recovered some ground from 1979, the Tories comfortably held the majority of British seats, winning 45 to Labour’s 32 (with the SNP again winning a single seat). The election, which coincided with the early months of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, saw in Wales a reversion to a more ‘normal’ pattern of voting: Labour finishing well ahead of the other parties in vote share, and substantially increased its majorities in the three seats it held. In North Wales, however, the Conservatives held on to their one Welsh MEP.

1984 European Election, Wales

PARTY

VOTES

% SHARE

SEATS

Labour

375,982

44.5 (+3.0)

3

Conservative

214,086

25.4 (-11.2)

1

Alliance

146,947

17.4 (+7.8)

0

Plaid Cymru

103,031

12.2 (+0.5)

0

Others

4,266

0.6

0

 

By the time of the 1989 EP elections, Mrs Thatcher’s political position was starting to falter. Labour inflicted the only defeat she ever experienced in a Britain-wide election, reversing the 1984 result by winning 45 seats to the Tories’ 32. Within Wales, Labour further extended its advantage over the other parties in vote share, and for the first time ever won all four Welsh seats, taking the North Wales one in a close, three-way fight with the incumbent Conservative and Plaid Cymru’s Dafydd Elis Thomas.

1989 European Election, Wales

PARTY

VOTES

% SHARE

SEATS

Labour

436,730

48.9 (+4.4)

4 (+1)

Conservative

209,313

23.5 (-1.9)

0 (-1)

Plaid Cymru

115,062

12.9 (+0.7)

0

Greens

99,546

11.1 (+10.9)

0

Liberal Democrats

28,785

3.2 (-14.2)

0

Others

3,153

0.4 (-0.2)

0

 

The final EP election under a constituency system came in 1994. By then, the Conservatives under John Major were plumbing new depths of unpopularity. Although the number of British MEPs was increased to 84, Conservative representation fell to only 18, compared with 62 for Labour; the Liberal Democrats and the SNP each won two seats. Wales was allocated one of the new British seats, with a new constituency being created, South Wales now split into South Wales Central and South Wales West (along with some other boundary changes). In all but the North Wales seat, Labour won easily. In the latter, even Plaid’s Dafydd Wigley could only come within 7 percentage points of the successful Labour candidate.

1994 European Election, Wales

PARTY

VOTES

% SHARE

SEATS

Labour

530,749

55.9 (+7.0)

5 (+1)

Plaid Cymru

162,478

17.1 (+4.2)

0

Conservatives

138,323

14.6 (-8.9)

0

Liberal Democrats

82,480

8.7 (+5.5)

0

Greens

19,413

2.0 (-8.9)

0

Others

16,689

1.7 (+1.3)

0

 

It was all change in 1999, after Tony Blair’s government introduced the regional-PR voting system, under which seats are allocated by the d’Hondt formula (which is also used for allocating regional list seats in the National Assembly). Of the various proportional formulae available, d’Hondt is the most favourable to the larger parties.

The 1999 EP election came when Tony Blair’s Labour government was still riding high in the UK polls, while the William Hague-led Tories were floundering. It was something of a surprise, then, that – albeit on a particularly low turnout of only 23% – the Conservatives finished first in the election, winning 36 MEPs to Labour’s 29. Helped by the introduction of PR, the Liberal Democrats won 10 seats, while UKIP (with 3 MEPs) and the Greens (with 2) won seats for the first time and the SNP held their 2 seats. In Wales, the EP election came but a few weeks after the inaugural National Assembly election, which had been notable mainly for Labour’s Welsh support slumping compared to the previous general election, and Plaid Cymru’s vote share reaching unprecedented levels. This pattern was repeated in the EP poll: Labour’s vote share fell substantially compared with 1994, while Plaid Cymru came close to matching it, and won an equal number of MEPs: two each, with the Conservatives also picking up one seat:

1999 European Election, Wales

PARTY

VOTES

% SHARE

SEATS

Labour

199,690

31.9 (-24.0)

2 (-3)

Plaid Cymru

185,235

29.6 (+12.5)

2 (+2)

Conservative

142,631

22.8 (+8.2)

1 (+1)

Liberal Democrats

51,283

8.2 (-0.5)

0

UKIP

19,702

3.1 (+3.1)

0

Greens

16,146

2.6 (+0.6)

0

Others

11,738

1.8 (+0.1)

0

 

For the 2004 EP election, the number of UK MEPs was cut (to ensure that the expansion of EU membership to ten new countries did not enlarge the EP excessively). The UK political landscape had also changed: UK involvement in the 2003 Iraq war had begun to drain support from Tony Blair and Labour. Of the now 75 mainland British MEPs, the Conservatives won 27, compared to only 19 for Labour; 12 each for UKIP and the Liberal Democrats; and two for the Greens and SNP. In Wales, the number of MEPs had been cut from 5 to 4. Labour’s support held up rather better here than elsewhere, while Plaid Cymru had been wholly unable to maintain their 1999 ‘quiet earthquake’. Thus, it was Plaid who suffered a net loss of one seat from 1999, and actually slipped behind the Conservatives in vote share:

2004 European Election, Wales

PARTY

VOTES

% SHARE

SEATS

Labour

297,810

32.5 (+0.6)

2

Conservative

177,771

19.4 (-3.4)

1

Plaid Cymru

159,888

17.4 (-12.2)

1 (-1)

UKIP

96,677

10.5 (+7.4)

0

Liberal Democrats

96,116

10.5 (+2.3)

0

Greens

32,761

3.6 (+1.0)

0

Others

56,663

6.2 (+4.4)

0

 

By the time of the 2009 EP election, the wheels had long since come off Gordon Brown’s Prime Ministership. Of the now 69 mainland British MEPs (numbers having been cut again due to further EU enlargement), Labour won only 13 and finished third in the popular vote behind the Conservatives (who won 25 MEPs) and UKIP (who also won 13). The Liberal Democrats won 11 seats; the SNP and the Greens maintained their 2 MEPs each; while the BNP made a rather unwelcome encroachment, also winning 2 seats. Perhaps the most telling signal of Labour’s slump in fortunes came in Wales, where the party finished second in vote share, behind the Conservatives, for the first time in any parliamentary or devolved election since 1918. Plaid Cymru’s continued electoral drift was demonstrated by their inability also to finish ahead of Labour in vote share. The Conservatives, Labour and Plaid all won a single MEP. The fourth Welsh seat was won by UKIP – despite Wales seeing UKIP’s third-lowest vote share of any British region, it was just high enough to secure the final seat:

2009 European Election, Wales

PARTY

VOTES

% SHARE

SEATS

Conservative

145,193

21.2 (+1.8)

1

Labour

138,852

20.3 (-12.2)

1 (-1)

Plaid Cymru

126,702

18.5 (+1.1)

1

UKIP

87,585

12.8 (+2.3)

1 (+1)

Liberal Democrats

73,082

10.7 (+0.2)

0

Greens

38,160

5.6 (+2.0)

0

Others

74,946

11.0 (+4.8)

0

 

What, then, should we expect for 2014? No recent EP election-specific polling has been conducted in Wales. (I hope that we can put that right before long!) But the most recent YouGov poll showed Labour riding high in Wales; they must have very high hopes not only of topping the Welsh poll but also of winning back a second Welsh MEP. With UKIP tending to do well in EP elections, and likely to enter the 2014 campaign at a much higher poll rating than previously, they must currently be rated as likely to retain their Welsh seat. After their recent Ynys Môn triumph, Plaid Cymru will also enter the EP campaign with some cause for optimism. The Conservatives are most unlikely to top the Welsh poll in 2014 as they did in 2009. Holding onto their single Welsh MEP is a more realistic ambition. Sadly for the Welsh Liberal Democrats, in the current political climate the height of their ambition must surely be simply to avoid too abject a defeat.

 

EDIT: Nick Powell of ITV-Wales has helpfully reminded me that they and YouGov did conduct a poll of EP voting intentions in February. The figures (with changes from 2009) were:

Labour, 44% (+24)

Conservative, 23% (+2)

Plaid Cymru, 14% (-5)

UKIP, 9% (-4)

LibDems, 7% (-4)

Others 3% (-14)

Were those figures to be produced at the EP election, Labour would win 3 seats and the Conservatives 1.

Comments

  • Dave

    The very basic 2 party split in November 2012 Welsh Police Commissioner elections saw the Conservatives polling only just under half of 1st pref votes to Labour (Con 71915, Lab 144805). UKIP are the real wild card. Crucially estimating how many votes they’ll win from Labour as well as unhappy Conservative and Lib Dems. Even Plaid should worry about losing voters to UKIP next June. Unless UKIP blow up they should be expected to finish second, and a decent second could well mean they sweep both the two seats not claimed by Labour. If you knock about a quarter off the other parties on Nick Powell’s 2009 poll and lump the lot onto UKIP you get an idea of how the permutations under d’hondt can vary wildly with fairly minor differences producing drastic consequences. Labour’s roadmap to 3 depends upon (a) polling the most votes; (b) polling more than twice the Conservative votes; and (c) also polling more than twice UKIP. While (a) & (b) look achievable (c) could prove a bridge too far. Losing Jill will be a bitter blow to Leanne and the ‘left’, but it looks on the cards. The Conservatives will do well to win the final seat. All that said, 10 months is a long time in politics …

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