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Looking Ahead: EU Elections

With the Brexit deadlock in Westminster and subsequent extension of Article 50, tomorrow - nearly three years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union – UK voters will go to the polls in the European Union elections.

Cardiff University recently held an EU Election Briefing at the Pierhead on the National Assembly estate – this is what I learned from the event.

European elections are usually classed as second order elections, meaning they are considered as being less important by voters. In practice, this means that these elections are characterised by low voter turnout, the success of smaller and opposition parties and fragmented political campaigns. A prominent feature of recent EU elections has been the success of Eurosceptic and populist parties.

In line with characteristics of second order elections, turnout was low in Wales in the last EU election at only 31.5%. The main party of UK government (the Conservatives) lost support in Wales and UKIP mobilised Eurosceptic sentiment by nearly beating Labour to first place with 27.5% of the vote.

However, we know that this is no ordinary election.

It hardly needs saying that Brexit overwhelmingly dominates the contemporary political agenda. Indeed, data from IpsosMori shows that 71% of the British public view Brexit, or the EU, as the most important issue currently facing Britain.

How the predominance of the European Union in people’s minds influences voting behaviour in the EU election is a fascinating prospect.

Opinion polls from YouGov show that people overwhelmingly believe that Brexit is being handled badly. Moreover, polling shows that the public primarily blame the Prime Minister and the UK Government for this failure. A bad result for the Conservatives will show a direct backlash against the Prime Minister’s delivery of Brexit. Compounding the misery for the Conservative faithful is the emergence of the Brexit Party. However, with Roger Scully’s most recent poll predicting the Conservatives falling to 7% of the vote – a sixth-place finish – even the Conservative faithful appear to have abandoned the party for Farage’s new outfit.

In normal times, a Tory poll rating of 7% and more people wanting Theresa May to resign than to stay would indicate a Labour landslide victory in Wales. However, these are no normal times, and the approval ratings of Jeremy Corbyn are even more damning than those of the Prime Minister. Labour has fallen to 15% in Wales in the most recent European ‘Scully Poll’, a result made even more remarkable by the fact that Labour has only lost one election in Wales in 100 years - a narrow second place finish in 2009, in a second-order EU election after 12 years of governance and at the nadir of Gordon Brown’s personal popularity. This poll has Labour coming third, a full four points behind second-place Plaid Cymru.

The recent series of polls represent the first time Plaid Cymru has even so much as polled higher than Labour in Wales, which gives some indication of the magnitude of Plaid Cymru potentially registering more votes than Welsh Labour. However, Welsh Labour followed its 2009 EU election disaster with a resurgent performance in the 2011 Assembly election, increasing its share of the vote by over 10% on the 2007 Assembly election, and picking up a record 30 seats – so Plaid Cymru will have to work hard to maintain any historic victory over Welsh Labour this week.

One thing that was made clear at the Cardiff University EU Election Briefing was the relative lack of shift and increase in polarisation in the Leave and Remain supporter camps. UK elections since 2014 have represented the largest period of voter volatility ever seen – with voters ready to switch their between parties in different elections.

This, along with the polling evidence, appears to indicate a strong first-place finish for the Brexit party in Wales in the European Union elections – although this is partly due the Remain vote being split between Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and to some extent Change UK.

It looks likely, then, that the European Union elections this week will deliver an unprecedented result in Wales. They also look set to blow apart past tribal loyalties and take place on a Leave/Remain dichotomy – rewarding parties that engage with this and punishing those that do not. The question for all the parties in Wales going forward is whether the successful parties this week can hold on to the voters they’ve picked up, or whether this week’s likely losers return to winning ways in more conventional elections.

These were elections that were never meant to happen, but they will no doubt have major implications for our politics.

For a bird's eye view.
Am olwg oddi uchod.

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