Jeremy Corbyn's tightrope act
At the time of writing, it is still unclear whether the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will actually participate in the 2019 European Parliament elections. If Prime Minister Theresa May manages to get the European Union Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with Brussels through the House of Commons, Brexit would stop the UK taking part. A second, even less probable, scenario would be a new agreement approved by both the House of Commons and the EU. However, if, as looks likely, the UK is still a member of the EU after 22 May, it will have to put up candidates for the European elections, and the country's political parties are now gearing up for this eventuality.
Unlike elections to the UK Parliament, EU elections in England, Scotland and Wales apply a system of proportional representation in each region, making this poll more representative of the votes cast and giving smaller, less established parties a much greater chance of success. While the House of Commons, with its first-past-the-post voting system, is dominated by the two main parties, Conservatives and Labour, the results of European Parliament elections in the UK have long followed a different pattern. The rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a right-wing populist party with the primary goal of getting the UK out of the EU, has been particularly apparent in previous European Parliament elections. UKIP polled 16.5% of the vote in the 2009 elections, making it the second largest party. In 2014, it notched up 26.6%, becoming the biggest party, sending 24 MEPs to Brussels, and consigning the Conservative Party to third place. These 2014 elections placed the Tories, in particular, in a desperate plight, as a governing party finishing third in first-past-the-post elections geared to a two-party system would be staring into the abyss. The initial legislation paving the way for an in/out referendum on EU membership was passed back in 2015. As we know, this would culminate, in June 2016, in a narrow majority voting in favour of Brexit.
Several years on from the referendum and weeks after what was supposed to be the final departure date, the political landscape in the UK looks chaotic, disorganised and utterly polarised. If they do go ahead, the European Parliament elections in the UK will inevitably be all about Brexit. The main parties, both government and opposition, have no other issues to campaign on, being completely unprepared for the nitty-gritty of EU elections. Therefore, the key question is how the two camps, Leave and Remain, will behave in these elections.
The Brexit camp
In the Brexit referendum he triggered, former Prime Minister David Cameron campaigned for the UK to remain in the European Union. Following the referendum and Cameron's resignation, his successor, Theresa May, tried to position the Tories as the party that would calmly, resolutely and in the end successfully negotiate and implement Brexit. In doing so, she has faced relentless pressure from within her party, most notably from the hardline Brexiteers of the European Research Group (ERG). For the Leave camp, the UK's very participation in the 2019 European Parliament elections is a sign of the government's failure to implement the 'will of the people' as expressed in the referendum, making a heavy defeat for the Conservatives all but certain. Nigel Farage was a member of UKIP from its outset in the early 1990s, sitting as one of its MEPs from 1999 on. He has now quit the party, having stood down as its leader for the final time in 2016. Since March 2019, he has been leading the Brexit Party, which was only formed in January of this year, and is running for the European Parliament again under its colours. It is quite possible, indeed likely, that in the upcoming elections Farage will repeat and maybe even surpass the success he enjoyed with UKIP, with the Brexit Party potentially becoming the biggest party and topping UKIP's 2014 result. Whereas in 2014 the Tories were only a few percentage points behind UKIP and Labour in first and second places, the party could find itself well and truly languishing in third position this time round, polling significantly below 20%. If so, the turmoil enveloping the parliamentary party and the party more generally will surely increase yet further (if that is even possible), again begging the question how the May government plans to weather this storm.
The Remain camp
Dyed-in-the-wool Remainers have a number of parties to choose from as an alternative to Labour or the Tories. The Liberal Democrats, David Cameron's coalition partners from 2010 to 2015, garnered 6.6% of the vote in the 2014 European elections but only ended up with one seat in the European Parliament. The Greens managed 6.9% in England and Wales in 2014, netting three seats. Change UK, a new party formed by a group of breakaway Tory and Labour MPs spearheaded by former Labour politician Chuka Umunna, could pick up between 5 and 10% of the vote. Last but not least, in Scotland and Wales there are the nationalist parties, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru, which already have representatives in the European Parliament. All these parties adopt a clear anti-Brexit line. Labour is split on the Brexit issue, but in recent weeks the party and its leadership have repeatedly shown themselves open to the idea of a second referendum, which seems to be the most promising option for ultimately stopping Brexit. So while many Remainers have been disappointed by Labour's stance, the party could, somewhat paradoxically, be their best bet for keeping the UK inside the EU. Given the idiosyncrasies of the electoral system, Labour could become or remain the top choice for anti-Brexit voters hoping for the softest possible Brexit if the UK does have to leave, one that would maintain a close relationship between the UK and EU. As a result, the Labour Party is expected to sustain only moderate losses compared with the Tories. Achieving significantly above 20% and possibly taking second place behind the Brexit Party could buoy the hopes of optimistic Labour supporters that they might emerge victorious from subsequent UK Parliament elections.
Outlook: advantage to Labour and right-wing populists on the up
Given the rumpus over Brexit, Labour's social and economic policy positions are taking a back seat in the run-up to these (potential) European elections. While Brexit might actually provide a favourable backdrop for such policy proposals, and withdrawal from the EU would have many direct impacts on UK society as a whole, the highly-charged atmosphere and polarisation surrounding Brexit are squeezing out any opportunity for meaningful public debate about the country's future. There is no contradiction here: Brexit has curdled into symbolic politics, and when this happens, election results are primarily an expression of the crisis in the representative political system – just as Brexit itself, the outcome of the referendum, is a symptom rather than the cause of the crisis. The muddled, chaotic and frustrating situation in which the UK finds itself today is the result of onslaughts by right-wing populist opportunists and the failure of democratic forces, which to various extents moved in the direction of the populists in an attempt to quell and 'appropriate' the populist revolt, rather than countering it. The Tories, long a majority Eurosceptic party, could now become the first victim. But the Labour Party is not immune either: dealing with the right-wing populist onslaught, which targets its supporters too, has proved a real challenge and continues to do so. Most of its members and voters either do not seem to put much hope in Brexit or reject it outright. And yet, partly for tactical reasons, Labour's line on this issue is dangerously indecisive. This tightrope act also makes any agreement on this matter with the May government unlikely. That said, it is quite possible that Labour, unlike the Tories, will emerge from this mess with just a few cuts and bruises, an outcome that is of course made more likely by the electoral system. For the Tories, their very survival is at stake, whereas even if Labour experiences losses, it could go on to emerge as the leading player in the party system, propelling its leader Jeremy Corbyn into 10 Downing Street. The results of the European elections will give us an idea of future developments. However, the key question for future general elections must be whether they will continue to be dominated by Brexit. The longer this gruelling process goes on, the more disruptive it will be for the political landscape and the party system and the greater the opportunities it will provide for right-wing populists. In other words, there is far more at stake here than just the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union.