In a surprising twist to the two-party system, the Conservative and Labour parties became the fifth and third most popular parties in the 2019 European Parliament elections. This was their worst result in a British election since 1932. From the outside, this signals the death of the two parties as the main parties in British politics. However, the reality is far more nuanced, and depends on how both parties adapt their Brexit policies accordingly. The rise of both the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats, both with comprehensible, firm stances on Brexit, highlights how the two main parties need to stop vacillating and firmly advocate either leaving the EU or remaining within it. If they do not, they risk facilitating their own demise.
Is the Brexit Party’s success really unexpected?
Contrary to popular outcries over the newfound success of Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party, the success of pro-Brexit parties in EU elections is nothing new. When the results of the 2019 EU elections in Britain are compared to those of 2014, a similar picture is presented for Eurosceptic parties. UKIP, then the dominant anti-EU party, was the most popular party, with 26.6% of the vote. Thus, the 30.5% of the Brexit Party’s vote, whilst an increase from 2014, is unsurprising.
Anti-EU parties have historically done well in UK elections to the European Parliament, with UKIP polling as one of the top-three parties since 2004. It is indeed remarkable for a new party to immediately solidify itself as the top-performing party in a British election. However the Brexit Party are the effective successor to UKIP and are viewed as such, despite UKIP’s continued existence. This is largely due to the strong personality of the former UKIP, and current Brexit Party, leader, Nigel Farage, being long associated with “Leave”.
Concerns raised over the 37% turnout in the elections also need to be contextualised, because this is largely standard for EU elections in the UK. The 2014 EU election had a turnout of 35.6%, close to the 34.7% turnout in the 2009 election. There were also fears of Brexiteers being under-represented in the election results. This was due to hard Brexit groups such as the Communist Party and grassroots Eurosceptics refusing to turn out, believing that the election should not have happened in the first place. As turnout was akin to previous EU elections, boycotts are unlikely to have influenced the election results too significantly.
This is particularly clear in Lord Ashcroft’s poll of 2019 voters, where he found the top two reasons why voters turned to the Brexit Party was: 1) to show their dissatisfaction with the government’s policy on Brexit and, 2) because they had the best policies on Brexit. A vote for the Brexit Party indeed appears to be a protest vote against both Brexit and the incumbent Conservative government. This shows how the EU elections are seen by Brexiteers as a forum for having their voices heard.
There is only one divide that matters – Leave and Remain
Gone are the days when left vs. right economic concerns dominated British politics. This election, like the 2017 General Election that preceded it, shows that there is only one divide in the electorate that really matters: Leave vs. Remain. This was shown starkly in 2017, when Labour safe-seat Mansfield turned Conservative due to its strong preference for “Leave”. Similarly, the Conservative stomping-ground of Kensington, who voted Remain, turned Labour. Both the 2017 General Election and 2019 EU Parliament Election show that the post-material Brexit issue is the major indicator of how people vote.
Now, Labour’s vacillating between whether or not to offer a “People’s Vote” on a deal and refusal to commit to a clear stance on “Remain” or “Leave”, is hampering its support. Conservative support is also dwindling, with the party’s civil war over the European Union Withdrawal Bill. Based on this, the two main parties are no longer viewed by voters as having a clear stance on Brexit. This was revealed again in Lord Ashcroft’s poll, where both Conservative and Labour voters cited the main reasons for voting for these parties as because they always do, and because they seemed the most competent party. These reasons were a far cry from Brexit Party and Liberal Democrat voters’ priorities when voting, and their resounding success shows that a clear policy on Brexit is the recipe for success in a British election.
The death of the two-party system at Westminster?
One thing to bear in mind when discussing this is that EU Parliament election results do not forecast General Election results. Although UKIP gained over three million votes in the 2015 General Election after its European success in 2014, this translated into one parliamentary seat. The most popular party in the EU elections is rarely the same for the following General Election. The greatest example of this is the 1999 EU election, topped by the Conservatives who went on to lose the 2001 General Election to Labour’s landslide. This makes it ultimately difficult to ascertain how the two-party system will be affected.
There is likely to be a spike in the Liberal Democrat vote, however, given that they are the only party committed to stopping Brexit. This could lead to strong “Remain” regions like London turning away from Labour, whose refusal to commit to a People’s Vote disappoints them. A Liberal Democrat resurgence in heavily-remain Scotland could also occur, depending on the SNP’s performance in Holyrood. However, the Liberal Democrats’ success is likely to depend on how well Labour adapt their Brexit policy. If done effectively, and Labour opt to favour its pro-Remain cosmopolitan base over its former heartlands, the “Remain” camp could return to voting Labour. This would boost Labour’s support base and leave the Liberal Democrat resurgence as a one-time event.
Where do the two main parties go from here?
The latest BritainElects poll of Westminster voting attentions has the Liberal Democrats leading at 24%, followed by the Brexit Party at 22%. Following the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May, a General Election is looking more likely, to solidify the mandate of her successor. As the two main parties are trailing the hard-line Brexit parties at 19% apiece, taking a firm Brexit policy is necessary to avoid a historic General Election defeat.
The Conservative Party, as the current governing party, will likely struggle to do this more than Labour. With some MPs wanting to remain in the EU entirely, others favouring a soft Brexit, and a significant proportion wanting No Deal, a coherent Brexit policy would be extremely difficult to formulate. Labour’s current predicament over Brexit is the fear that promising a People’s Vote would lead to a strong loss of support from its Leave-backing Northern heartlands. Yet this promise may have to be the risk they take, to claw back support lost to the Liberal Democrats – particularly since most Labour MP’s favour remaining in the EU. Therefore, the future of the two parties is very much in their own hands.