Labour remain ahead in European election poll, but who'll triumph in May?

UKIP trails Labour by six points but, as in 2009, the party is hoping for a late surge in the polls.

Nigel Farage has been predicting for months that UKIP will win this May's European elections but the latest poll, in common with all other recent surveys, shows Labour remain ahead. YouGov's poll for the Sun puts Miliband's party on 32%, UKIP on 26%, the Tories on 23% and the Lib Dems on 9% (which would leave them with no MEPs on a uniform swing). 

Given this, you might expect Farage to be lowering expectations, but he remains confident that his party will triumph on 22 May. UKIP figures point out that they only moved into second place in the final weeks of the 2009 campaign after a late surge (aided in part by the expenses scandal). On 8 May 2009, a YouGov poll put them on just 7%, 15 points behind Labour and 12 points behind the Lib Dems. But by 3 June 2009, the day before the election, they were on 18%, two points ahead of Labour and three points ahead of the Lib Dems. They eventually polled 16.5%, finishing in second place, 0.8% ahead of Labour. While recognising that the race will be tight, UKIP strategists are hoping to pull off a narrow victory this time round. 

But the year has not started as they would have wanted. Farage has long vowed to turn the European elections into a referendum on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration but the dearth of migrants since the transitional controls were rlifted on 1 January (just 24 Romanians have entered the UK, according to the country's ambassador) means he may now struggle to do so. Labour enjoys the advantage of simultaneous elections in all 32 London boroughs and all 36 metropolitan boroughs, areas where its core vote is strongest. Party strategists hope that enough voters whose default setting is to put a cross in the Labour box will turn out for the party to see off the Farageist threat (my own prediction is that it will). 

If Labour do finish second, the consoling factor will be that the Tories, for the first time in a national election, will have finished third. While Conservatives hope that such a result is already "priced in", the danger remains that it will prompt another insurrection from Tory backbenchers determined for their party to adopt an even tougher line on Europe. This would detract from the party's central message that Labour can't be trusted to manage the economy and ensure that it continues to obsess over an issue of little or no interest to most voters.

As polling by Ipsos MORI has long shown, the EU does not even make it into the top ten of the public's concerns. Lord Ashcroft's recent study of Tory-leaning voters found that an EU referendum is "a sideshow" for most of them. He wrote: "A surprising number of those we spoke to did not realise it was even on the agenda, and were nonplussed when they found out it was. Those for whom it is important know all about it (though they sometimes doubt it will come to pass even if the Tories win). But to make it a major theme of the campaign would be to miss the chance to talk about things that matter more to more people."

For the Lib Dems, the worst case scenario is that they finish fifth, behind the Greens (who won 8% of the vote last time round). At the Lib Dem conference last year, one senior party activist suggested to me that this prompt a leadership challenge against Clegg. With a year to go until the general election, there would be still be just enough time to send for Cable or Farron. 

More than on any previous occasion, all three of the main party leaders have good reason to dread the count on 22 May. 

Nigel Farage prepares to speak at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester Town Hall on September 30, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.