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Who goes? Europe decides! - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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June 4th, 2009


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03:28 pm - Who goes? Europe decides!
Today and over the coming three days, the 27 member states of the European Union will re-elect the members who represent them at the European Parliament, the body responsible for debating and voting on (generally EU-wide) legislation proposed by the European Commission. The elections in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands take place today. (Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory, is lumped in with the UK, but the Crown Dependencies that are the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands ignore the election completely.) In England, elections will additionally be held for about 40% of the seats in county councils, district councils and unitary authorities. Additionally, a small number of elected mayors are defending their seats, and for the benefit of the rest of the world who don't get to vote, I may let you decide whether I have muesli for breakfast or steal some of Meggie's crumpets.

I'm not in an area where the local elections are taking place, so I'm most interested in the European elections. As well as the usual news sources of TV news organisations and newspapers, I've been following analysis from three particularly strong sources: Political Betting, which is one of the most-read UK political weblogs all around. It's excellent for data and analysis, though remember that bookmakers tend to set their odds to guarantee themselves a profit regardless of the outcome rather than to reflect their actual expectations of the outcome of the events who they monitor. Sometimes the comments get pretty murky, too.

Secondly, UK Polling Report, who seem to position themselves as the closest thing we have to a UK FiveThirtyEight, which would be a glorious thing. Site editor Anthony Wells wrote a glorious counterfactual, but the FiveThirtyEight team's baseball stats background leads them to a lot of original thought and methodology making Anthony a follower rather than an innovator.

Thirdly, a much underrated commentator and my old mate Iain's blog which I've plugged lots of times before, but it is really good and you should consider reading it. Iain is a thorough researcher, an insightful thinker and an all-round good egg. His politics tag includes an admirable proposed reform policy for UK politics at large, a lovely analysis of today's local elections (quack!) and a seven-part history of the European Parliament. Stretching for a criticism, Iain subscribes to the tradition of naming things the way he thinks they should be named, a practice that stretches from Private Eye to Tuesday Morning Quarterback. Iain's work is even more worth taking seriously than either of those; the in-jokes are fun, but I still miss many of the references.

Without blinding you with unfamiliar names, the European election in the UK is conducted under a relatively proportional system. Generally:if one party gets twice as many votes as the other in a region, it gets twice as many seats. That's it. It gets slightly blurry when we're scrabbling around the edges of "one seat or no seats" and it's hard to work out the precise nuances of tactical voting, but it's really not designed to reward tactical voting - if sufficiently many people don't accurately represent their first preference, the result rapidly becomes unpredictable. To me, this spells "just vote your true first preference" and leave it at that. I don't claim it's the best voting system possible, but I still like it far more than the one we used in 1994. Getting into polling system geekery, I do like Condorcet counted systems, though I wouldn't recommend using one here; I am aware of their disadvantages, but reckon that every system has its disadvantages and the advantages of Condorcet are easily sufficient to outweigh its associated disadvantages (e.g. the enabling of "burying") in a lot of cases. Not this one, though.

Incidentally, as much as I admire STV and would have preferred it to be used in Great Britain - much as it will be in Northern Ireland - on this occasion, I don't completely buy arguments concerning the effectiveness or otherwise of polling systems based on "wasted vote" criticisms. Specifically, I can see how reassignment of preferences "stops votes being wasted", I just don't think that "stopping votes being wasted" is all that important when determining the desirability or otherwise of a voting system. Yes, open lists are clearly preferable to closed ones. beingjdc has - as well as this very interesting and relatively plausible potential future history - identified a possible pathological case with the system used this time, but (again) I don't consider that a killer blow against the d'Hondt system's credibility as it's possible to construct pathological cases to criticise each system. I prefer to look at them as all good in different ways, rather than all flawed.

UK Polling Report feature the most recent polls from each of the newspapers (which are, sadly, up to five days old) and also this last YouGov poll (from a beefy sample, plus YouGov methodology has relatively recently tended to be more representative in practice than the newspapers' interviewer-led polls). The Conservative party are clearly leading in voting intention with about 25%-30% of the vote and it's very close for second place on about 15%-20% between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party. While the Westminster government has been (more or less) either Labour or Conservative for about a century, when it comes to Europe, we don't have a 2½-party system so much as a 4.7511111-party system in England, with additional very strong players in Scotland and Wales. (That's made up of a half, a quarter and some crumbs.) With apologies, I will demur from blogging from ignorance about the situation in Northern Ireland.

The overarching political concern for the last month or so has been a sequence of revelations regarding MP's expenses. These have embarrassed politicians from across the political spectrum, though the biggest effect has been to continue to augment the antipathy towards "the system" at large. Betraying my leanings, I personally was a little more offended by some of the Conservative MPs' claims, but the court of public opinion broadly seems to have concluded that Conservative leader David Cameron has been a bit more effective than Labour leader Gordon Brown in dealing with the issue. Over the last day or two, a number of ministers have resigned, or at least said they would stand down at the next election. Of particular significance, the minister for Local Government stepped down the day before Local Government elections, which is clearly an embarrassment, not reflected in even the most recent YouGov poll; even the Chancellor is under pressure. Labour are in genuine danger of finishing fourth in "a two-party system".

While theoretically the point of the European elections is to try to ensure the European Parliament reflects the voters' preferences, many people seem to want to use it either to protest against the current Labour administration or to protest against "the system" by voting against the three major parties. (I wonder if there is a similar protest vote against the SNP Holyrood administration in Scotland or the Labour-PC administration in Cardiff?)

There is a degree of antipathy towards Europe at large, though in my view often poorly thought-out and sometimes borne of xenophobia. The Liberal Democrats are, broadly, relatively strongly in favour of European integration; the UK Independence Party, the British National Party and a number of smaller xenophobes are strongly against European integration and want to step back from protocol in place. The Labour and Conservative parties both have pro- and anti- factions and consequently have weaker views; I perceive Labour are pro-integration but not as pro- as they would like to be were it more popular, and the Conservative party are fairly explicitly against European federalism without going as far as proposing withdrawal altogether.

However, each of those parties ties up its position there with many other facets of policy. The BBC summarise the platforms here, but I could only recommend taking those as starting-points and then browsing the manifestos in depth of the parties that you might have been considering. You'll find that no party is completely unobjectionable, and no party is completely without merit. (Though several have very small lights hidden under very large bushels.)

Both the UKIP and the BNP include "stop mass immigration" in their platform, which is an automatic contention-killer for those of us for whom migrants' rights is a major point. (Yes, I did marry someone from another country because I was - and, still more than ever, remain - more attracted to her than to every single member of this country, thank you for asking.) While the BNP's manifestos have been deleted from Scribd - and if a "socially-minded" grey-hat has been responsible, that is not the public benefit that at first it might appear - the policies of "voluntary repatriation" and preference for Britons in allocation of housing and jobs are among the most distressing offered by any party. A leaflet of theirs said "It's not racist to oppose mass immigration and political correctness - it's common sense!" which follows a particular logical fallacy. While "opposing political correctness" need not be racist, when it isn't, it's very often homophobic or even anti-Semitic. Avoid.

The UKIP's policy on immigration is available, though outdated given that a points system, similar to the one they propose, has in fact been introduced. The policy of requiring adoptive citizens to be on probation for ten years, during which time they must not attract so much as a trumped-up parking ticket or face deportation, is abhorrent. The blanket statement that "The UK would withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights" is horrifying in a way that it wouldn't be if they were to say even as much as "The UK would withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, but don't worry, we'd put the ones we liked back in place".

Can't find the link after a quick search, but one of those political surveys once pointed out that as far-right as the BNP may be socially, economically they're extremely protective of their core constituents, and apparently that is not uncommon among the traditional Far Right. (Oh no, here we are.) Conversely, the UKIP do seem to be economically "every man for himself" in a way that even the Conservatives consider to be the unacceptable face of capitalism. (Scrap inheritance tax, cut corporation taxes, "introduce 'workfare' to get people back to work"...) All that and they're linked with climate change deniers as well. (I suppose every party of appreciable size has its loony wing, to use the term in its political sense, but most of the parties have the decency to try to distance themselves from the loonies.) For what it's worth, I judge those who I know to have voted UKIP or BNP harshly. (Can't say I have much time for UK First or the English Democrats either, and NO2EU - of the opposite economic persuasion - are oddly silent on immigration matters...)

Ugh. Among other minor parties, Libertas are a pan-EU party who want EU reform, which sounds good, though they aren't very specific about what they want to introduce, just what they want to remove. I suppose this makes them the least objectionable of the small-governmenters, but not knowing what you're voting for is dangerous. There is a Christian-branded party, espousing "the good old-fashioned hate-y sort of love", which will probably pick up 1%-2% across the board (cf the 2008 London Assembly elections). Similarly, the far left are as split as usual (Socialist Labour, Socialist UK and I think NO2EU are pretty left-y as well) and can expect to pick up 1%-2%... between them.

More interestingly, "Jury Team" is an umbrella label for anti-party-politics independents. This is the sort of thing I would have been all over as an energetic young man and they've acquitted themselves rather well in my Friends' dealings with them. The concept of a slate of independents doesn't really work, though, no matter how good the independents are; this is an Independent Party, not an independence from parties. There are additionally one-issue parties for pensioners, peace, animal rights, Cornish independence and, er, pretending to be Roman. Salve! Now Valete!

I don't mean to be quite so dismissive of these small parties, no matter where they stand. As much as I am gloomy about the prospect of some fringe views getting state funding, if sufficiently many people hold those views, it seems a failing of the system if they are not represented. I tend to believe that the way to deal with odious beliefs is to tackle the beliefs and the thinking behind them, not to reform the voting system to stamp them out, even at the less-than-a-few-percent of support level. As a digression, emphasising in advance that here I'm specifically not referring to today's European election, here is an unpopular opinion.

I have a lot of sympathy for a nationally proportionally representative government rather than a regionally proportionally representative one. If some fringe views have a small proportion of the support nationally, might they be worth representation in the same small proportion of a fully elected revising chamber, in the style of the House of Lords? This would result in a lot of fringe views being represented, even fringe views I oppose extremely strongly, but I would argue this is ideal for a revising chamber even if not for a representing one. It's not as if some of the existing Lords don't have some pretty fringe views already, even if they sit under a conventional party (or cross-bench) affiliation.

The counter-argument against this that it would defeat the "you elect a local MP" level is a strong argument against this being used to elect local MPs, but there is no established link - and, I would argue, no need to establish a link - between a local constituency and their elected Lord, who would never be answerable to some hypothetical local constituency in practice. A nationally proportionally representative system would eliminate constituencies of locality and form effective constituencies of opinion. If the Archbishop of Canterbury wants a seat in the Lords, let him stand for a Christian party and see if he gets elected. (A putative STV election paper would be a bit of a big old bugger, mind you...)


The issue of turnout is really up in the air. European elections always get relatively weak turnouts, with UK turnout being among the worst. It is unclear whether the current anti-establishment feeling will result in mass protest in the form of mass anti-establishment vote, or mass apathy. Conventional logic suggests the latter, but Political Betting reports that many of those willing to use BNP and UKIP for their protest vote are certain to do so, while the big three parties' (and Green, though surely based on a very small sample) supports may be less likely to come out. I don't think there's clear consensus on how turnout is looking based on the data so far today. I had a pet theory that people are more likely to vote when there's both a local and a European election for them to vote in, causing higher votes in some regions (where there happen to be more local elections) than others, but the data doesn't support this.

Even though voting in the UK takes place today, it takes place across Europe until Sunday; while the counting will start at some point soon after the UK elections close, no results will be declared until the last paper closes on Sunday night, so the big Euro-results show (and Iain's Euro-results liveblog) will presumably happen after 9pm UK on Sunday night. (I do hope there aren't issues with votes going astray between voting and counting, or between counting and reporting.) The local results will start coming out during the day tomorrow; accordingly, there's no results show tonight. I would have missed it anyway, by virtue of needing an early night before the day shift tomorrow.

As a parlour game, below I submit my predictions of how each region will turn out. "Just a bit of fun, just a bit of fun", as is associated with political polling presenter extraordinaire Peter Snow. (Albeit under completely different circumstances.)

In England, I have broadly assumed a 7% share of the vote outside the big six, maybe a little more in London. (In 2004, there was a 5.9% share outside the big six, but Martin Bell took 6% in East of England, Respect got about 5% in London and the Liberals did well for a minor in NW England. I'm not sure any of the Independents will be big hitters this year, even Katie Off The Apprentice in the south-west.) Working roughly downwards through England, then further afield, as is my English wont:

North East England: 24% Labour, 20% Conservative, 17% Lib Dem, 15% UKIP, 10% Green, 7% BNP. With three seats, this probably goes Labour, Conservative, LD, but I think there's a reasonable chance that UKIP could beat LD to third spot. Lab 1 Con 1 LD 1
North West England: 25% Conservative, 19% Labour, 14% Lib Dem, 13% UKIP, 12% BNP, 10% Green. Gulp - this is the big one. If the BNP do relatively well and the UKIP do badly relatively anywhere, I think it'll be here. With eight seats I think it gets pretty sketchy pretty quickly. The first five seats will probably go, roughly, Con, Lab, LD, UKIP, Con; the last three are up for grabs. UKIP or LD getting a second seem unlikely, but all six getting at least one could be on the cards. Lab 2 Con 2 LD 1 UKIP 1 Green 1 BNP 1
Yorkshire and the Humber: 23% Conservative, 19% Labour, 17% UKIP, 16% Lib Dem, 9% Green, 9% BNP. With six seats and all four big parties at least semi-competitive, I think the first five are going to follow the national trend and go Con, Lab, LD, UKIP, Con with the sixth up for grabs. Lab 2 Con 2 LD 1 UKIP 1
East Midlands: 26% Conservative, 20% UKIP, 16% Labour, 14% Lib Dem, 9% BNP, 8% Green. Again, the first five are going to follow the national trend and go Con, Lab, LD, UKIP, Con - just not in that order. Lab 1 Con 2 LD 1 UKIP 1
West Midlands: 26% Conservative, 17% Labour, 15% Lib Dem, 15% UKIP, 11% Green, 9% BNP. With six seats elected now and a seventh to be elected if the Treaty of Lisbon is ratified, I think we start off with the usual Con, Lab, LD, UKIP, Con shuffle for the first five and the sixth is very close. Lab 1 Con 2 LD 1 UKIP 1 Green 1 and, you know, it's a knife-edge between the BNP, Conservative 3 and Labour 2 for the putative seventh seat.
East of England: 29% Conservative, 21% UKIP, 14% Lib Dem, 13% Labour, 10% Green, 6% BNP. Seven seats. Sing along with the first five - Con, Lab, LD, UKIP, Con, though Labour may come fourth, and UKIP look good to get seat number six. The Greens could sneak number seven; at least, they shouldn't be far behind Conservative 3. Lab 1 Con 2 LD 1 UKIP 2 Green 1 though maybe a Green here is a stretch...
London: 24% Conservative, 18% Labour, 15% Lib Dem, 14% UKIP, 10% Green, 8% BNP. Another eight-seater. The first five follow national lines in some order. Green Jean Lambert should defend her seat - I have her sixth - and the last two seats are anybody's. Lab 2 Con 3 LD 1 UKIP 1 Green 1
South East England: 31% Conservative, 20% UKIP, 15% Lib Dem, 11% Green, 11% Labour, 5% BNP. The Greens might even beat Labour into fifth hear with Caroline Lucas, the Green leader, standing strongly. I have the seats going in a funny dance: Con, UKIP, Con, LD, then a Labour-Green intermezzo in some order, then another stanza of Con, UKIP, Con, LD. With ten seats, this prediction is flaky. Lab 1 Con 4 LD 2 UKIP 2 Green 1
South West England: ...and Gibraltar. 27% Conservative, 22% UKIP, 18% Lib Dem, 12% Labour, 9% Green, 5% BNP. Likely Labour fourth here. With six seats Labour will have to book it to make it to the Con, Lab, LD, UKIP, Con standard five, probably in fifth place, with the sixth and last seat hard to call. I reckon it's UKIP 2, but Con 3, Lib Dem 2 and Green all have hopes. Lab 1 Con 2 LD 1 UKIP 2 but I would be delighted to be wrong and for the Greens to win a seat here.
Scotland: 30% SNP, 20% Labour, 16% Conservative, 14% Lib Dem, 8% Green, 5% UKIP, 4% BNP. The SNP scoop up the non-Big Three non-Green vote here. With six to go, this is interesting. I think it goes SNP, Labour, Con, SNP, LD, Labour, but SNP 3 have a hoping of beating Labour 2, maybe even LD one. Lab 2 Con 1 LD 1 SNP 2
Wales: 24% Labour, 23% PC, 14% Conservative, 13% UKIP, 10% Lib Dem, 5% Green, 4% BNP. This one's tricky, even with as few as four seats. Labour and PC for the first two, then it gets harder. The Conservatives have a good shot at number 3, number 4 is close between UKIP, the Lib Dems and second seats for either Labour or PC. I call this one UKIP, but it could go anywhere. Lab 1 Con 1 UKIP 1 PC 1
Northern Ireland: no clue, so I shall follow the consensus-ish of (in some order) Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionists and Conservatives, Democratic Unionists.

Adding this all up, I get 22 Conservative, 15 Labour, 12 UKIP, 11 LD, 5 Green, 2 SNP, 1 PC, 1 BNP, 1 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 SF. Now let me tell you that I've not seen anybody seriously suggest that the Greens are likely to get four seats, let alone five, so you should interpret these as having been influenced by a heavy dose of wishful thinking and just-breaking-right anti-big-three protest voting. Should that happen, it would seem very strange for UKIP not to get more than 12 seats. In truth, the markets favour Labour to finish behind both UKIP and the Lib Dems in terms of seats; I have Labour outseating UKIP by three on a lower share of the national vote, by virtue of Labour consistently picking up in Scotland, Wales and the North-East of England where UKIP may be squeezed out. A Green jump from two seats to five would be a big old swing, but it's predicated on a national vote share jump from 6% last time to only 10%-ish this time.

Honestly, I'm not convinced by my conclusions, but I've shown my working, so it's all at least plausible. I can't help feeling that given that the two parties for which I have the most affinity, the Liberal Democrats and Greens, seem to do rather well, I may have put my own prejudices and biases in to a greater extent than predicted. We shall see. These are my conclusions. What are yours?

Now get out there and vote!

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