The Brexit Party is in the lead – but what do polls for the European elections actually mean?

 D’Hondt rush to judgement. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The pollster changes but the song remains the same: the Brexit Party is on course to win the European parliamentary elections, Labour is still just about in second place, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are in a battle for third, the Greens are in a strong fourth place, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists are doing well in their own theatres, and Change UK and Ukip are bobbing along the bottom.

If the polls are to be believed then the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats are successfully making themselves the vehicles of choice for both poles of the referendum debate, with dire consequences for Labour and apocalyptic ones for the Conservatives. According to polls of Westminster voting intention, the defection of Leave and Remain voters isn’t just a European affair but a national one, too. If repeated at a general election, Labour would win 316 seats, short of a majority but more than capable of taking office, with the Conservatives well back on 179 seats, the SNP on 55 seats, the Brexit Party on 49 seats, the Liberal Democrats on 28 seats, Plaid Cymru on four seats and the Greens on one.

All very exciting, but worth taking with at least a moderately sized pinch of salt. It’s helpful to remember that since the switch to the proportional D’Hondt system, these elections have been won by William Hague, Michael Howard, David Cameron, and Nigel Farage: that is to say, converting European election triumph into general election success is the exception, rather than the rule.

We shouldn’t forget either that in the 2010-5 parliament, Ukip won the European elections and two by-elections. At the general election it won just one seat: Clacton, where it had the benefits of the most pro-Ukip demographics of the whole country.

It’s also worth remembering that in the run-up to the 2014 European elections, enthusiasm for Ukip consistently bled over into what people told pollsters about the Westminster elections, with that party polling at the 18 to 20 per cent mark. They got 13 per cent in the 2015 general election.

One reason why these elections are tricky for both the Conservatives and Labour is that their most powerful card – that, thanks to our appalling electoral system, only a vote for one can be certain of removing the other from office – is not in play.

It is certainly possible that supporters of the Brexit Party will decide that 49 seats for Nigel Farage and friends and a Labour minority government backed up by one or more of the second referendum parties is a price they are willing to pay to punish the Conservatives, but given Leave-voting 2017 Conservatives’ dislike of the Labour Party in general and its leader in particular, I wouldn’t bet heavily on it.

Paradoxically, I would be more worried about the general election implications of the breathless coverage of Farage’s new crew were I in Labour’s shoes, because all these projections about the fate of the Tories send a message to Remainers who want the Conservatives out and a second referendum that they can send a signal about the latter without jeopardising the former, which ain’t necessarily so.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.