The vote for Europe: PR poll boosts Lib Dem prospects hope

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The Independent Online
IN TEN days the United Kingdom goes to the polls to elect 87 members to the European Parliament, voting for the first time by proportional representation in a national election.

Ireland and the Netherlands also vote on Thursday next week, and the remainder of Europe's 298 million electors vote on Sunday 13 June.

Certainly, Labour will win far fewer seats than last time and the Liberal Democrats far more. The Tories should also make significant gains unless they lose to the UK Independence Party and the breakaway pro-Euro Conservatives. Beyond that, nothing is certain.

In the last Euro-elections the Tories slumped to their worst vote in any nationwide election, just 28 per cent, the same as Labour's miserable showing in the 1983 general election. They lost almost half their seats, and Labour, with 44 per cent of the vote, won three-quarters of all the contests across Great Britain. But that was under first-past-the-post.

Next week, even if each party wins the same number of votes as it did last time, the voting system change would make a huge difference. Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University calculate Labour would have 19 fewer seats, the Tories seven extra, the Liberal Democrats 10 extra and the SNP and Plaid Cymru one more each.

If the Liberal Democrats win 10 seats. they will boast that their representation in Strasbourg is five times as great as in 1994. But the true baseline is the 12 seats they would have won in 1994 had the new system been in operation. On a like-with-like comparison, they would be down two seats. The other equivalent baseline figures, from which gains and losses should be measured are: Labour 43, Conservative 25, SNP 3, Plaid Cymru 1.

The other way to compare next week's results with 1994 - or, indeed, any other past election - is to look at the share of votes won by each party. But the exercise is fraught with hazard. In May 1989, the Liberal Democrats won 21 per cent in local elections; six weeks later they won just 6 per cent in the Euro elections. For a brief moment the Greens became Britain's third party, but they have never come remotely near the 15 per cent they won that June in any election since when real power was at stake. In contrast to the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru have won some of their highest votes in Euro elections.

Even without the change in voting system the "others" share (nationalists, Greens and other minor parties) would be likely to exceed the 11 per cent won in 1994, which was already far higher than in any general election this century. But the change in voting system could push the "others" vote far higher. The reason is that the proportional voting system helps small parties. Plaid Cymru will certainly be represented in Strasbourg for the first time. The Greens must also be hopeful, after their success in Scotland earlier this month, when they won one of the Lothian seats in the PR part of that election. And if UKIP or pro-Euro Conservatives can gather momentum during the next 10 days, one or both of them could also win seats.

A total "others" vote of 20 per cent, by no means out of the question, would leave just 80 per cent to be divided among the three main parties - com-ared with 93 per cent in the general election two years ago. This means the percentage votes of all three could fall short of their 1997 performance. Labour hopes to win at least 40 per cent of the total vote but a score in the mid-thirties looks far more likely.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Tories must score 30 per cent for William Hague's position as leader to be safe. It is touch and go whether his party will make it.

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