Emily Cole

Naked Politics Blogger

Remain and Brexit supporting parties have both claimed victory in the European elections. For Brexiteers, the result is a clear message of “we need to get on and get out”, whereas for Remainers it is an obvious rejection of Brexit.

While we can fight about whose claim is more accurate, what these results do show is that the two mainstream parties are the biggest losers. The Conservatives saw their worst electoral performance since 1832, while Labour equally tanked it in their heartlands, especially Wales and Scotland where they came third and fifth respectively.

There’s no denying that parties with an unequivocal pro-Remain platform did well. The Liberal Democrats and Greens made huge gains nationally, with the Lib Dems getting 15 MEPs, coming in second overall to the Brexit Party. The Greens managed to pick up 7 seats across the country, from Yorkshire and the Humber and the North West, to London and the South East. In Wales, had the votes of pro-Remain Change UK gone to the Lib Dems, they would have taken a seat there as well.

The revival of the Lib Dems in the local elections a few weeks ago has been a continuing trend in the European elections. Their pro-European message hoovered up Labour votes across the country, but especially London where they topped the polls, gaining them three MEPs and winning in constituencies such as Islington – Jeremy Corbyn’s territory – and Haringey. It seems a fitting retirement present for their leader Sir Vince Cable, going against the grain of ‘all political careers end in failure’. Their successes are probably more ‘in spite of’ than ‘because of’ his leadership, but we’ll let him have it.

Smaller parties clearly did well, but the party of government, the Conservatives, got just 8.7%. Trying to unify the country around a compromise deal has proved deeply unpopular. The majority of their support bled to the Brexit Party, with voters buying into the narrative of a ‘clean break Brexit’. So, any deal that involves a backstop, a transition period, close alignment or anything resembling a Customs Union can be understood by these voters as a betrayal of the vote.

What is obvious is that the Brexit Party not only built on UKIP momentum from 2014, but significantly ate into Conservative support, with the party only able to return 3 MEPs. Conservative members and supporters openly said they would back the Brexit Party, with swathes of membership, 57%, supporting a No Deal Brexit. I think there’s also no doubt that numerous Tory MPs themselves voted for the Brexit Party, especially with a field of well-known small-c conservative candidates like Annuziata Rees-Mogg and Ann Widdecombe.

With 28 MEPs, the Brexit Party has become the largest of the UK delegation which helps to emboldens No Dealer Brexiteers in parliament. No longer can pragmatic politicians say that those who voted to leave didn’t vote for No Deal when a party actively campaigning on that platform received over 30% of the vote. With the most prominent Tory leadership contenders such as Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab on the cusp of endorsing it as their default position, it’s likely that the party will end up adopting No Deal. This will be especially likely if they lose the upcoming Peterborough by-election to the Brexit Party.

While Conservatives have their own problems, Labour equally bombed in the elections. The Party’s ‘constructive’ ( though more like destructive) position pushed pro-Europeans towards Lib Dems and Greens, and leavers towards the Brexit Party. Without a single coherent party for remain, the Brexit Party benefited from splintering Labour votes across the north of England, in the North East, North West and Yorkshire, where remainers split the vote by going for the Liberal Democrats and Greens.

Scraping in 14% of the vote and less MEPs than the Liberal Democrats should be telling the leadership something about their Brexit policy. To have been in opposite for 10 years, to be performing poorly in the past two local elections and to be losing MPs to a new political party, I’m beginning to wonder what kind of disaster it will take for Labour to address its problems. It’s all very well Emily Thornberry sticking the knife in to the leadership and acknowledging failure over Labour’s position, but whether this leads to concrete policy changes is a different matter.

Another problem for Labour that this election highlights is that Scotland seems to have completely deserted the party, with both their MEPs from 2014 losing their seats, one of whom, David Martin, was the longest serving MEP in the UK . The results illustrate the growing disparity between the Scottish political climate and the rest of the UK, with the SNP picking up nearly 40% of the vote. Labour have been all but wiped out, coming in fifth place, with the Brexit Party, Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives each picking up a seat.

If Labour is to win the next general election, it needs to win seats in Scotland. As somewhere that voted 62% Remain, this obviously raises significant questions about the role that Labour’s fudged Brexit policy played in their dismal result. Labour’s failure to embrace a more pro-European position left a void in Scottish politics, with remainers flocking to the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. While the decline of Labour in Scotland is not a new phenomena, placing fifth in a national poll is; and its refusal to back the European cause is causing this haemorrhage to accelerate.

The results are in no way decisive, and the issue of Brexit becomes even harder to solve with such a polarised country. There is no clear route out for either Labour or the Conservatives in a paralysed House of Commons that won’t alienate parts of their core voters. Secondly, the European elections do not change parliamentary arithmetic.

There still appears to be no majority for any kind of Brexit deal, a second referendum or a No Deal and divisions in parliament are equally reflected in the country. So how do we get through this impasse? I just don’t know.  

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Last Update: May 24, 2024