European elections: How UK vote could help predict outcome of a second Brexit referendum

May's European elections will not just be written up not just as an electoral test for party politics, but also as a proxy for a second referendum, as this article from The Conversation explains.

European elections: How UK vote could help predict outcome of a second Brexit referendum
Photo: AFP

The last time European elections were fought in the UK, Nigel Farage was buoyant. UKIP became the first party other than Labour and the Conservatives to top a national poll in a UK-wide election in 98 years. Farage proclaimed that “the UKIP fox is in the Westminster hen house”.

This time, Farage, as well as parties on the Remain wing of British politics, are promising to blow the whole house down. Interpretations of the results of these elections are likely to rest on the degree to which the bubble of two-party politics – perhaps the key political fact of the 2017 general election – has burst.

These elections are the only UK-wide political contests fought under a proportional system, and potentially the last for the foreseeable future. This is vital to understanding how they have worked in the past, and why they are important to British politics now.

Since they became proportional contests in 1999, European elections have always led to a small decline in support for the big two parties. These dips sustain themselves for a brief period, before the majority of voters drift back to their existing tribes. This time, these elections are seen as a tool and an opportunity to entrench a sharp decline already underway and due, in no small part, to the Brexit process.

Each party has their eyes on their own interests and, specifically, on the prospect of a further general election in 2019. This has coloured the behaviour of the Remain parties in particular. Electoral rules have made it difficult – although not impossible – to establish a genuine “Remain alliance”. Yet, the fact is, there were good reasons for pro-Remain parties to avoid any formal coalition. After all, when it comes to normal elections, they would be in competition.

Nor is it necessarily the case that remain-orientated parties will damage the cause if they work in competition against each other – despite what those who have criticised the absence of a Remain alliance have claimed.

While not necessarily pursuing the optimal strategy to win seats, by providing a slew of different anti-Brexit options, they could be maximising their chances of a high vote share. It is far from clear, for example, that a Lib Dem-Green-Change UK joint ticket would be more successful at attracting Conservative, Remain-inclined voters than these parties acting independently. And in an election whose significance lies as much in what it tells us about the state of opinion on Brexit as anything else, that matters.

Mapping the vote

These elections will be written up not just as an electoral test for party politics, but also as a proxy for a second referendum. The ability to test which areas of the country currently have the highest levels of relative enthusiasm – measured in turnout – will provide a useful indication of which voters would show up in another national poll on EU membership.

Significantly, five of the ten local counting areas which saw the biggest increase in turnout between the 2015 local elections and the 2016 referendum – Boston, South Holland, Mansfield, Fenland and Bolsover – were also in the top ten areas that voted most heavily for Leave. If, in these elections, the biggest jumps in voter turnout between 2014 and 2019 are in areas that voted disproportionately Remain, that would suggest the opposite effect: a relative enthusiasm among Remain voters. This is important, not least as the drift to Remain in opinion polling is largely predicated on voters who did not turn out in 2016.

The European election might serve as a warning shot to incumbent MPs. Success for the Brexit Party in leave-voting Labour marginal areas might prompt some soul searching as to whether backing the PM’s deal might be the lesser of two evils, should the alternative be losing a seat due to the impact of Farage. Higher than expected losses to insurgent Remain parties will have the opposite effect.

As always with these elections, expectation management will be key. This time, it won’t just be the political parties massaging the figures to claim voters have delivered a particular message – it will also be the groups campaigning on either side of the Brexit debate. 

So there is much to play for, albeit that the actual point of the elections – sending MEPs to Brussels – might be somewhat lost from sight.

This article was originally published on the Conversation website. It was published in partnership with The UK in a Changing Europe.





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Erna Solberg interview: ‘Benefits of Norway’s relationship with EU far outweigh downsides

In an interview with the organisation Faces of Democracy, Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg answers questions on the country's relationship with the EU, right-wing populist movements and Norway's future role in the world.

Erna Solberg interview: 'Benefits of Norway's relationship with EU far outweigh downsides
Erna Solberg with Faces of Democracy's Sven Lilienström. Photo: Rune Hammerstad


Q. Norway is not an EU member state. However, it is part of the European Economic Area – which has existed since 1994 – and is also a Schengen member state. How important to your country is a close partnership with the EU?

It's very important from an economic perspective. We conducted a major review of the EEA Agreement – our economic link – through a major commission that was, I believe, established ten years ago. The commission’s findings showed that the benefits are much greater than the problems. While there are downsides to the type of relationship we have with the EU, the benefits far outweigh them.

These benefits are primarily close cooperation for businesses and enhanced market opportunities. Norway, and in fact all of the Scandinavian countries, have accepted the most labour migrants from other European countries. But workers from the EU countries have contributed to the economic growth of our country. I think this is the reason why EU labourmigration hasn’t created the same kind of friction as in other countries.

There are challenges in the labour market; there are challenges with shady businesses that do not comply with our labour market rules and regulations and therefore compete unfairly’, we need to address the problem of social dumping, which is an area where we would like to see closer European cooperation to stop border-crossing crime.

Still, the overall picture is that the EEA agreement ensures opportunities for our businesses, it maintains welfare standards for our society and it boosts job creation. It also ensures a high degree of cooperation between the Norwegian non-governmental sector and the non-governmental sectors of other countries. This is especially true of the Central European countries. This is because our financial contribution through the EEA and Norway grants foster closer cooperation between organizations in the former Eastern European countries.


Right-wing populist movements are gaining ground in parts of Europe and are also present in Norway. Do you consider the populists to be more of a risk or rather a potentially corrective force for democracy in your country?-

I believe that you should always have respect for people’s votes and opinions. In my government, we have a faction that is to the right of the conservative party, or more liberalist-leaning. In my opinion however, this is not the sort of right-wing political faction that exists in other countries, although it has traditionally been stricter on migration than other parties in Norway. But, being a liberalist faction, it naturally tends towards lower taxation and the party is absolutely within the spectrum of European mainstream politics.

One disturbing thing is hate speech in social media. This is causing changes, not so much in politics, but by creating a toxic debate climate in Norwegian social media. This is challenging because we are seeing increased Islamophobia and increased scepticism towards migration, linked with anti-climate policies and EU scepticism. All of this sometimes gives rise to a very toxic debate in social media.

Yesterday we had a large civil rally aimed at stopping hate speech and to encourage more moderate discussions in social media. I’m not sure that it will help, but it does give stimulus to those who want a more respectful form of debate on Facebook and other social media sites.

According to the current “Global Gender Gap Report”, Norway ranks second in terms of the gender pay gap. What can other countries learn from Norway to help them close their gender pay gaps?

There are different reasons why we have a narrower gender pay gap. We have a system of laws and regulations and if you consider women and men in the same type of jobs, they are mostly equally paid. But we still have a difference between different sectors that require the same level of responsibilities and education or training; there is still a gap here. Still, the true gap facing us is between different sectors. 

But I do think that having unions that focus on equal pay is important. We have an ombudsman system and an anti-discrimination act that allows workers to complain to their ombudsman or anti-discrimination committee that they are not receiving equal pay.

Companies in Norway are also obliged to report on their anti-discrimination activities to ensure that equal rights are observed. All of this places the focus of business thinking on asking why their payrolls exhibit different pay for men and women. 

Ms. Prime Minister, your second term in office ends in 2021. Which issues are still on your political and personal agenda and what is your vision for Norway’s future role in the world?

That’s quite a question! In Norway we’ve been through a situation where we have experienced an economic downturn because of the drop in the oil price. Our economy showed that it had the strength and resilience to bounce back after an increased unemployment and we have now become more competitive in the oil and gas sector.

The great challenge facing Norway is that the oil and gas sector will contribute less to our growth because our oil and gas investments and production are currently peaking, so output will be reduced in the future. Oil and gas will, however, remain a major industry in Norway for a long time – but that's not where we are going to keep focusing.

So we will be facing the same issues as most other European countries. How can we create more jobs in a more competitive and globalized world? How can we make sure that we are creating new jobs if we will be losing a small number of jobs every year in the oil and gas sector? The solution is about education. It's about investment in research & development. It's about the framework for businesses and start-ups in our country.

The interview with the Norwegian Prime Minister was first published on the site Faces of Democracy. You can read the full version HERE.