With the European elections nearly upon us, it’s nearly time to decide how to cast our votes. Unfortunately, the choices are very complicated. A friend has asked me to lay out the options, and this post is my attempt to do so.
Hold on to your hats. This is going to get difficult.
A quick disclaimer before we start: I am going to try in this post not to advocate for any position on leaving or remaining in the EU, but only to offer guidance on how to vote given that you favour one policy or another. There’s no secret about my position: I am an ardent remainer who thinks that Brexit is a historic mistake. But I will try not let that influence the body of this article.
So, we begin.
The first thing to understand is that in Great Britain these elections run under the D’Hondt system, which is a proportional system but just about the most opaque and undemocratic such system imaginable. (Northern Ireland uses a different system, which I won’t address here.) I’ll come back to other implications of the D’Hondt system later, but the first and most important thing to understand is that you don’t vote for an individual, you vote for a party.
This affects everything. Suppose for example you live in a region where some Conservative Party candidates want to remain in the EU and others want to leave. You can’t (if you’re a remainer) vote for those Conservative candidates who want to remain: all you can do is vote Conservative — and the party decides which of its candidates take up whatever seats they win. Parties will generally publish an ordered list of their candidates, so you can look up the individuals and make a guess on how far down the list the party is likely to get — but there’s a lot of guesswork involved here, and this seems to me like just the kind of work you don’t really want individual voters to have to do. Still, we’re stuck with it.
With that background out of the way, let’s look at the question that can help you decide which party to vote for.
Q1. What issue concerns you most?
For most of us, these elections are about one thing: do we want to leave the European Union (and if so, on what terms), or do we want to stay. But that’s not true of everyone. Some people will have specific regional concerns that they want their representatives in the European Parliament to address. If that’s you, then things are reasonably simple: vote for the party whose candidates will best represent your position on the issues in question.
For the rest of this post, I will assume that your main concern is Brexit.
Q2. What do you want to happen with Brexit?
If you want a no-deal Brexit, you should vote for the Brexit Party, which is simply and unambiguously promising to work towards exactly that. The Brexit Party has no manifesto, and has expicitly said that it will publish one after the election, which seems particularly bizarre for a party whose campaigning position is that they’re defending democracy. But if that doesn’t bother you too much, then we can at least say that even in the absence of a manifesto the Brexit Party’s position on Brexit is pretty clear, and that it’s that it wants Brexit.
(There is also still UKIP, whose policies seem to be essentially identical to those of the Brexit Party. But all the momentum has departed UKIP along with its figurehead Nigel Farage. Anyone voting for UKIP at this point will probably just be splitting the hard-Brexit vote. UKIP are basically over.)
If you want to leave the European Union with a deal of some kind — whether a fully “soft” Brexit where we stay in the Single Market and Customs Union, or a harder Brexit where we enter into a customs union (whatever that means) — or even if you want to leave the SM and CU, but still feel we should leave under the terms of a withdrawal agreement rather than just setting fire to everything, then your best best is probably the Conservative Party. They remain, just, in government right now; and Government policy is still to pass the withdrawal agreement (WA) agreed by the UK and EU teams, known colloquially as “May’s deal”. If that deal is passed, then there are still many possible end-states. These will be influenced, but not wholly decided, by the contents of the Political Declaration (PD), the other of the two main documents that emerged from the government’s negotiation with the EU. While the WA cannot be renegotiated, the PD can be; but any changes in the PD are not even going to be proposed, let alone agreed, before the election. So if you vote Conservative, you are accepting the danger of a so-called “blind Brexit” where there is a commitment to leave the EU somehow, but no agreement on what the result will look like.
But if you want to leave the EU with a deal, you might also want to vote Labour. I will have more to say on their very complex and confusing position below, but the bottom line is that, while they insist they have irreconcilable differences with the Government regarding Brexit (which is why the Corbyn/May talks broke down yesterday), their policy is in fact pretty difficult to tell apart from the Government’s without sensitive scientific instruments. Ultimately, both want to leave the EU with a deal.
For the rest of this post, I will assume that you want the UK to remain in the European Union, since if you want to leave you’ve have already chosen the Brexit Party, the Conservatives or maybe Labour.
Q3. Which parties support remaining in the EU?
Much depends on what Labour’s position actually is.
Q4. What actually is Labour’s position?
Seriously, no-one knows. When senior Labour ministers are interviewed on Peston, that are not able to clearly articulate what Labour’s policy on Brexit is. Every time a shadow-cabinet minister issues a statement, another one issues another statement that contradicts it.
All of this arises from Labour’s attempt to appeal to both Leavers and Remainers. Their deliberately ambiguous position actually served them pretty well in the 2017 General Election, where they performed better than anyone had been predicting (hence the present all-but-hung parliament). But as battle-lines have hardened, their failure to get off the fence has left them increasingly alienated, with Leave-oriented Labour supporters moving to the Brexit Party (see above) and Remain-oriented supporters moving to one of the three Remain parties (see below). I see this as a critical strategic error on Labour’s part: they seem to have started from the maxim attributed to Napoleon, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”, and extrapolated it into “Never interrupt your enemy, ever”.
The closest Labour MPs come to consensus is in insisting that they still adhere to the policy agreed at their party conference last September. But that policy was itself a fudge, born of the party members’ overwhelming desire to remain in Europe and the leadership’s desire to Leave. Corbyn, having been elected Labour leader on the basis of his promise to let members set policy, has comprehesively reneged on the promise in order to instead impose his own preferences. As a result, the policy is something like this:
- We’ll try to somehow get a General Election out of this.
- If we can’t do that, we’ll try to negotiate with the Government to get a “jobs-first Brexit”.
- If we can’t do that, then “all options remain on the table, including a confirmatory referendum”.
If you think that option 3 sounds weaselly, you’re not alone. And the wording in the Labour’s campaign leaflet is directly descended from it: it says that the party “backs the option of a public vote” to avoid a “bad deal”. But we don’t know what it considers a bad deal — if the Tories agreed to some form of customs union would that count as good? — and even given a bad deal, Labour is only saying it backs the option of a vote, rather than backing a vote.
So is Labour a pro-Leave party or a pro-Remain party? Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t think anyone can really blame habitual Labour voters from abandoning the party in droves to support parties that are unambigously either Leave or Remain.
Q5. Should you vote for Labour if you want to stay in the EU?
Opinions differ. It is certainly true that Labour are the biggest opposition party in Parliament, and therefore the party that has the most power to oppose Brexit if it chose to; but it’s also true that it has not chosen to, at least not yet, while other parties are unambiguously opposed to Brexit.
Some commentators argue that a Labour vote is still the best best for Remainers in the EU elections, while others argue that there is little point in giving your vote to a party that is trying to achieve Brexit. The pro-Remain fact-checking organisation In Facts comes down on the side of saying “Don’t vote Labour in European elections” and I am inclined to agree with them. After the 2017 General Election, we were repeatedly told “82% of votes went to parties that support leaving the EU”. I’m not going to be part of that statistic again: fool me once, shame on you.
So my position (and I recognise that there are reasonable people who disagree) is that Labour is a pro-Brexit party and there’s no point in trying to stop Brexit by voting for a party that wants to implement it. My vote is going elsewhere.
Q6. Who are the pro-Remain parties
In England, three parties have declared unambiguously that they will support remaining in the European Union, either by directly revoking the Article 50 notification or by attaching a confirmatory referendum to whatever deal is agreed in Parliament. They are the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, and Change UK.
In one sense, it doesn’t matter much which of these you vote for. At some stage after the election, someone will tally up the votes accumulated by the various parties and say “The Remain parties won x votes”.
But in another sense it matters very much. Because people are also going to say “The Remain parties won n seats in the European Parliament”, and they will compare that with the m seats that the Brexit party won, and draw conclusions from that. And because the Brexit Party is roughly speaking the only game in town for hard Leavers, they going to get a very good return of seats for the number of votes they get — whereas the Remain votes are going to be split between three parties, yielding fewer seats. It’s quite possible that the three remain parties could get more votes in total than the Brexit party, yet end up with less than half as many seats.
So for that reason, it’s probably best to vote tactically — to pick whichever of the three Remain parties most needs your vote in order to win a seat.
(By the way, there is no such thing as “winning” this election, as there is in a General Election. Even if a single party wins more than 50% of the seats, they don’t get to form any kind of European “government”, they merely send more MEPs to participate in the European Parliament. So in that sense, the number of seats won matters much less than it does in a General Election. But it’s still going to be politically important.)
Q7. Which pro-Remain party should I vote for?
Haha, if only we knew! Due to the vagaries of the D’Hondt system, figuring this out is complex, and — crucially — varies depending on what region you’re in.
It’s not even as simple as saying “Vote for whichever of the three is strongest in your region”, because multiple MEPs are elected from each region, and it may turn out that (for example) moving votes from a weak Green party to a strong Lib Dem party doesn’t give the Lib Dems and extra seat but does cost the Greens the seat they might otherwise have won.
There are twelve regions in the UK (including one in Northern Ireland), electing a total of 73 MEPs. Individual regions elect anywhere between 3 and 10 MEPs, which means the threshold of votes that a party needs to reach in order to be represented varies wildly between different places. And guessing which way to vote in order to push a Remain-supporting party in your region past a seat-earning threshold depends on polling data, which is notoriously unreliable — especially in low-turnout elections like the Euros.
Some people are responding to this by throwing their hands up and saying that tactical voting is just not really possible: for example, Becky Snowden, founder of the tactical voting site Tactical2017.com, has argued that it’s just too complicated to figure out, and the best thing to do is just vote for any of the Remain parties and hope for the best: that the key thing is doing what we can to increase turnout. (And turnout is really important, for sure: encourage your friends and family to vote!)
But other organisations have risen the challenge posed by all the complexity, crunched numbers (using some sophisticated statistical techniques) and reached a surprisingly simple conclusion: that in England you should vote for the Liberal Democrats, in Scotland for the SNP and in Wales for Plaid Cymru. But please note that numbers are shifting all the time, and this recommendation might not hold nearer the voting date. Remain United will be rerunning this research and publishing the results on the 21st May (Tuesday), so you should definitely check back there then, before following their present recommendations.
As far as I can make out — their website is not very explicit — they worked the numbers separately for each of the regions, and it just happened that the outcome was the same for all nine English regions. (There’s no surprise that the results in Scotland and Wales each favoured only a single party, as each of those countries has only a single region for the purpose of the European elections.)
Q8. What if I don’t like the Liberal Democrats?
You have to make a judgement call. Realistically, no-one agrees wth all the policies of any party, but only you know whether your dislike of the Lib Dems — whether based on present policies, personalities, or historical failures — outweighs your desire to get the best outcome for Remain in the European elections. I can certainly imagine someone who is particularly concerned with the environment deciding to vote Green despite what the maths says, and I have a lot of sympathy with that.
It’s certainly very harsh on the Greens and Change UK that these recommendations don’t suggest voting for them in any of the UK’s regions. In the case of Change UK, I can understand it: to be honest, they seem to have mismanaged virtually every aspect of their existence right down to not really knowing what their own name is, and they seem to have burned right through the goodwill they initially generated as a new party. But the Greens have done nothing wrong — and it rubs me up the wrong way to vote against the Greens when we in the South West region have a very good Green MEP already in Molly Scott Cato. Under other circumstances, I would probably vote for her to retain her seat. But at the moment, I am a one-issue voter, and that means there are going to be losers as well as winners.
Q9. That was way too long. Just tell me who to vote for
If you’re inclined to trust the statistical analysis of Remain United (and I am), then you should check the relevant page on their website on Wednesday and follow their recommendation, if your only concern is finding a way to remain in the European Union. At the moment, their advice is to vote Liberal Democrat in England, SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales. But it’s your vote and you should use it as seems best to you.
 If you want a no-deal Brexit, please take a moment to consider why you want that. If it’s because you just want it all to be over, please know that the only way to make that happen is for us to revoke our Article 50 invocation and remain in the EU. No-deal Brexit is not an end-state: it’s a step into a world where we will spend the next decade or two constantly negotiating with the EU, from a position of weakness, to try to get back some fraction of the benefits we’ve surrendered by leaving the EU. Now you may feel that this pain is worth going through in order to obtain the benefits of a no-deal Brexit, and if so you should vote accordingly. But please don’t think that a no-deal Brexit will end anything. Very much the reverse.
 “Probably”, because almost nothing is certain in this arena. Political parties’ positions on Brexit are in flux, with the Conservatives and Labour particularly subject to radical changes. But I am giving the best advice I can on the basis of what we know right now. Caveat lector.
 I say that the WA cannot be renegotiated: some politicians (mostly Conservative, but some Labour) are still insisting that it can be changed, but the European Union has been as emphatic as it could be, right from the start, that this option is not on the table. Its officials (president, negotiators, heads of state) have spoken with one voice on this, yet still there are plenty of UK politicians who insist that if they were in charge instead of May, they could get the EU to change its mind. You will have to decide for yourself whether they truly believe this or are just saying what they think will gain votes; and if they do believe it, you will have to decide whether they are right and the EU is wrong. At any rate, I think it’s at least fair to say as a null hypothesis that the WA currently on the table is the only one that is going to be available to this or any subsequent government.
 I don’t think this is really open to debate, but if anyone wants to have a go at defending Corbyn’s actions as compatible with his promises I’ll be happy to hear the argument.
 It does bother me that we’re still hearing such self-evident nonsense as “jobs-first Brexit”. All reputable economists, including the Government’s own, agree that any form of Brexit will have a negative impact on the economy, including the loss of jobs. We could talk about a form of Brexit that aims to minimise the loss of jobs, but not one that creates jobs. This basic dishonesty has been a recurring theme since before the referendum. Of course that doesn’t in itself mean that Brexit shouldn’t happen: perhaps most people, faced with a sober assessment of what Brexit would mean for the economy, would still want to proceed. But they have never been faced with that sober assessment. It’s out there for those who care to seek it out, but you never see it seriously discussed on Question Time or Peston. It’s all slogans.