[Written by Rafe Uddin]
[Illustrated by Julia Rosner]
The Brexit Party appears to be steamrolling the upcoming European Parliamentary (EP) Election, aided by coverage and a demographic that seems to be unwilling to see through duplicitous behaviour in the face of a clear-cut solution to leaving. Despite the Aaron Banks-rolled suits of Nigel Farage being doused in Five Guys Milkshake (RRP: £5.25), the Brexit Party continues to own the coverage. Meanwhile, there’s what can only be described as a lack of coherence on the remain side, which is ultimately bolstering the position of those favouring Brexit. The EP election is unlikely to redefine the parameters of the Brexit process – but it will be a central marker in understanding the public’s willingness to engage with the issue three years after the referendum. Voter turnout and how specific regions vote will ultimately be used as a watermark to see if perceptions have changed, or more importantly leant towards certain parties’ interpretations of Brexit.
European Elections are not very glamorous – in many ways, they’re the antithesis of Americanisation and all the lashings of big ad spending and PR consultants. But in other ways, they’re a paragon of efficient electioneering. For the upcoming EP elections, spending is capped at £45,000 per candidate fielded in England, while a cumulative cap of £270,000, £180,000, and £135,000 is implemented for Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish seats respectively (Electoral Commission, 2019).
This stands in significant contrast with the cap for general elections, which can peak at £19.5 million for a party contesting all 650 seats. At the 2017 General Election, the Conservatives spent £18.5 million campaigning, whilst the Labour Party spent £11 million. A key segment of the Conservative party’s election budget was spent on Facebook ads (£2.1 million) and allocating money to Lynton Crosby’s consultancy firm (£4 million). Crucially, the spend on Facebook alone was four times their Labour counterparts – and is one method of campaigning that is unrealistic in a European Parliamentary election.
The Conservative Party has seemingly hankered down for the upcoming EP election, with the weight of the government’s failure to withdraw from the EU in an orderly fashion. This will pay dividends for the opposition, most importantly Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Tories will be engaging in a lacklustre campaign, relying on government-funded party leaflets to minimise spend as they brace for a significant loss of seats. Admittedly, the Tories are going up against the Brexit Party, who are lobbying for a no deal Brexit, which has seen them propelled to the front of the polls.
Issue ownership seems to be central to the Brexit Party’s resonance with conventional leave voters. This is no different to when Nigel Farage was responsible for UKIP – in fact, the party was able to lean on the currency it earnt as a leading Brexiteer party – when it won the most seats (24 on a vote share of 26.6%) in the UK European Parliamentary elections of 2014. At the time of writing, the Brexit party is polling as high as 34% (Source: YouGov), with more conservative figures lying around the 31% mark (Source: ComRes). This is almost identical to the performance of UKIP at the previous EP election.
But there’s a distinct difference, as the Brexit party is seemingly engaged in a broad-brush campaign, with figures drawn from Turning Point and even former revolutionary communists. It’s a strange amalgam of candidates, but it seems to be working. Admittedly, the party plays off the substantial coverage it and more importantly, Nigel Farage receives at no cost to itself in the name of “balance”. But criticisms of the BBC do not cover the reason why Farage is ultimately successful. The simple fact is that the party trades on one issue, and it has chosen the most binary and most harmful outcome as its mantra. Viewing this simply as a second referendum, and seeking to withdraw on WTO rules, the party has no quibble throwing out nuance.
Critically, the Brexit Party is doing well amongst those earning far higher than the national average; this will be important to recognise in the aftermath of the vote. Indeed, following the EU referendum in 2016, the vote was commonly attributed to the working class in the North. This was based on the interpretation of Brexit voting as a rebellion against austerity and globalisation that had left areas destitute. However, the leave vote was most popular amongst conventionally older and conservative (with a big and small c) voters in the South. Crucially, these voters are pursuing an action at little personal cost. Indeed, with their pensions secure and their assets vastly superior to their younger counterparts, notions of free movement and certain social safeguards aren’t necessarily at the forefront of their agenda. Thus, the economic arguments that underpin the remain side seem to be disregarded by a substantial minority of voters who shaped the referendum and may ultimately do so at the EP election.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the electorate on the remain side has a diverse range of options to choose from in the EP elections. The SNP, Greens, Liberal Democrats and Change UK are the four major parties advocating for remaining within the European Union or calling for a second referendum. I can write about the Labour Party, but it wouldn’t make much of a difference on the issue. Not that they won’t win seats, it’s just that much like the Conservative Party, they’re struggling to carve out a clear way forward as they struggle with the broad and diverse nature of their voting base. Sat second in the polls, their position isn’t as much along a leave/remain binary as some would hope, which is evidently frustrating some voters, as they shift to more clearly defined remain parties.
From the remain camp, there are evident flaws – the Liberal Democrats and their “Bollocks to Brexit” slogan is a starting point. It seems to infantilise the nature of political discourse, and it certainly isn’t as funny as they seem to think. What’s clear is that the Lib Dems aren’t looking to extend an arm of friendship but want to consolidate seats/votes/rank in the election. The coarseness of tone adopted is pushing voters from the opposition away, playing on a divided society that will only further undermine their position in a post-Brexit environment. It appears that the Lib Dems are attempting to play to strengths seen in the early 2000s when they vehemently opposed intervention in Iraq. Except voters will not forget that in the interim the Lib Dems oversaw half a decade of austerity, supporting some of the most regressive if not reductionist economic policies available to the government.
The Green Party have twinned the idea of remaining in the European Union with forms of climate and social justice. In many ways, the Green’s parallel the Labour Party, but importantly do so with a definitively pro-remain position. This approach seems to be working well in the polls, although it’s difficult to tell how it will manifest itself in terms of seats. We can contrast this to Change UK, the party composed of independent MPs that has been progressively declining in the polls. The clique of MP’s that constitute Change UK are lacking in unity outside of the need for a second referendum and remaining within the EU – it certainly doesn’t help when a party seeking seats in an election cannot arrange its Twitter handle accordingly.
In Scotland, the SNP have relaunched a campaign for an independence referendum, on the basis that the political environment they were promised has changed. It is a legitimate point; with the Scottish electorate having voted in the significant majority to remain within the European Union, the SNP have a national mandate to protect the interests of voters on their side of the border. But that’s only fair if the referendum isn’t a core tenet of their party ideology. Instead, to some it may seem like an opportune moment to pursue an agenda that was never really off the table, neglecting a wider UK remain project in pursuit of a nationalist one.
Evidently, the EP elections will be viewed as an indicator of fatigue and voter positions in the aftermath of the referendum. Yet, the remain side is floundering, unable to gather in collective action, in the face of what is a highly professional if not untoward political organisation. What is concerning is the quiet temperament of some Conservative figures *cough Boris* vying for May’s post, and it’s these figures who will inherit the vote when they ultimately oust the PM. Much like UKIP at 2014 EP election and the 2016 referendum, it won’t be the Brexit party delivering on this one. However, despite these caveats, in the upcoming election, the Brexit Party offers something clear – simple and binary – which despite its evident flaws (because the world isn’t as black and white as the Change UK logo) is appealing to a broad demographic, something unparalleled on the other side of the aisle.