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European Elections in Wales, 2: the prospects for UKIP

As discussed in my previous post, the next major electoral event in Wales will be the European Parliament (EP) election in May 2014.

Substantial academic research has been conducted on EP elections: an amount that might seem excessive to many. But for academics EP elections are a delight: simultaneous contests to the same political institution across multiple different states, with different histories, political cultures and electoral systems. It’s as close to a laboratory for electoral research you could get: almost as if politicians had deliberately created a political institution purely for the benefit of academic researchers.

What have academics learned about EP elections from all this study?

  • First, voters tend to see EP elections as less important than those to a national parliament or for a national President.
  • Because of that perceived lesser importance, fewer people bother to vote. Turnout levels have consistently declined since the first EP elections in 1979 – even as the powers of the EP have increased substantially.
  • Among those who do vote, the perceived lesser importance of the elections produces some differences in how people vote. They are less inclined to vote strategically – say to vote for a second choice party to stop one they really dislike – and more likely to vote idealistically for a party whose ideas they quite like, but which would stand little chance in a first-order election, or to issue some form of ‘protest’ vote.
  • Finally, recent EP elections have also seen explicitly Euro-sceptic or anti-EU parties do notably well in many states.

Based on these general findings, as well as recent UK experience, we could probably expect that across Britain as a whole the Conservatives will do quite poorly next May; the Liberal Democrats will do even worse; and that UKIP will do rather well. If I had to bet the mortgage right now, I would put it on UKIP to come first in both seats and votes, ahead of Labour, across Britain as a whole next year. But even if they don’t do quite this well, UKIP’s performance is likely to be the big story from the EP election.

What about Wales? In the three EP elections since regional-list PR was introduced in 1999 (when UKIP won seats) UKIP’s performance has shown an interesting consistency:

  • In 1999, UKIP’s lowest vote share was in Scotland and its third lowest in Wales (the second lowest was in London);
  • In 2004, UKIP’s lowest vote share was in Scotland and its second lowest in Wales;
  • In 2009, UKIP’s lowest vote share was in Scotland and its third lowest in Wales (the second lowest was in London).

In 2009, this performance was still enough to win UKIP one of Wales’ four EP seats. (The four seats were split between the first four parties in vote share: the Conservatives, Labour, Plaid Cymru and UKIP. Under the d’Hondt formula, for the party coming first to win two seats it needs to get double the percentage vote of the party coming fourth; the Conservatives fell just short in 2009 in Wales). Nonetheless, UKIP did not perform at the same level as they did across nearly all of England.

Why have UKIP been weaker outside England? In part this is because of the greater range of alternative options for voters to choose from. Scotland and Wales have their own significant parties in the SNP and Plaid; though parties like the English Democrats have emerged, they have yet to become an established force. Voters dissatisfied with the main UK-wide political alternatives have another direction in which they can turn in Scotland and Wales.

But attitudes also matter. Scotland and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Wales are not as Euro-sceptic as England. This is not to say that they are wildly Euro-enthusiastic. At the moment, to be frank, there is not much Euro-enthusiasm anywhere in the EU. But levels of dissatisfaction can, and do, differ. Within England, the recent Future of England Survey Report shows London to be notably less Eurosceptic than the rest of England. Wales generally scores a little lower than England as a whole in hostility to the EU, and Scotland lower still.

This rather contradicts the impression given by a Western Mail article of a few weeks ago, based on one question in one survey, which showed a 9% lead in Wales for leaving EU in a putative referendum. The Western Mail might usefully have remembered Twyman’s Law: Any piece of data or evidence that looks interesting or unusual is probably wrong’.

A broader review of the available relevant evidence neither justifies claims that the Welsh view EU relations wholly differently from the English; nor that the Welsh are every bit as hostile to the EU as the English. Rather, if we compare relevant evidence, such as voting intentions in a European referendum, using polls conducted by the same company and using the same methodology and question wording, we find gradations of difference. For example, the July poll for this site conducted by YouGov found voting intentions in Wales on a European referendum to be at 39% for ‘remaining a member of the EU’ and 40% for ‘leaving the EU’. The most recent evidence from England gathered by YouGov put the voting intentions at 32% for ‘remaining’, 47% for ‘leaving. (Thanks to Laurence Janta-Lipinski of YouGov for making this data available to me).

What does this imply for next May’s European election? In my view, we should still expect UKIP to do rather well in the EP elections in Wales. But probably not quite as well as we can expect them to perform in England.

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