There are seven party groups in the European Parliament, plus an eighth catch-all of independents. From approximate left to right, you have these six:
- European United Left / Nordic Green Left who fulfil the militant wing and live up to their reputation by having two names and needing to claim to be united in their title because you know they ain't going to be united in real life.
- The Greens / European Free Alliance - fair play, you know where you are with the Greens and they have a pretty good manifesto on their web site. Which is a shame because it makes it very easy to see how you disagree with them. Unexpectedly, the Scottish National Party's MEPs are part of this group, as are Plaid Cymru's. Well, I wasn't expecting that, at least.
- Party of European Socialists who I have put to the right of the Greens mainly for the reason that the British Labour Party here are in the group so they really can't be all that socialist after all
- European Liberal, Democratic and Reform Party who are neither in this sketch nor in that sketch but somewhere in between. (Remember Spitting Image when it was funny?)
- European People's Party - European Democrats, which the BBC describe as a "broad church" including both "euro-enthusiast Christian Democrats and eurosceptic British Conservatives".
- Union for Europe of the Nations, apparently so right-wing that no British party will affiliate with them. (Let's hope we don't have to find out where a BNP MEP might go.) Their web site doesn't give any specific policies at all, which is ominous.
So the big question for me is who to vote for. The knee-jerk response is "either the Liberal Democrats or the Greens", the usual choice I face in an election. But, you know, VoteMatch says that I am a closer match to the European Socialists than to either the European Greens or the European Liberal Democrats. With the Greens, I know I'm not with their stance on nuclear energy, their balance on human rights, their air traffic views or their views on Europe's position in the world. (The Greens do get kudos for proposing a Tobin tax to punish currency speculators, though. Yes, yes!) The European Liberal and Democratic Reform Party actually seem to be more free-market than I am comfortable with, which I wasn't expecting. So it's looking like the European Socialists suit me best, which means voting Labour. Blimey.
In a sense, it doesn't matter. The North East zone, being puny small (less than two million, pah!) will elect three MEPs this year. daweaver and I have discussed the electoral system at great length already, but the quick version for the North East is that "the three parties who get the most votes will get a seat each, unless the top party is miles ahead of third place in which case it'll get two seats, or miles and miles ahead of second place in which case it'll get all three". It's a bit hand-wavey about "miles ahead" but when you start talking about "number of times as many votes" then eyes start to glaze over.
Last time the North East had a split of Labour 42%, Conservative 27%, Lib Dem 14%, UK Independence 9%, Green 5%, Sundries 3%. The same result this year would produced 2 Labour MEPs and 1 Conservative MEP, and this result looks very likely again. Last Euro election, Labour polled 27% nationally to the Conservatives 34%, so to get the 8% Labour-to-Conservative swing on top of that would require Blair to have started to eat babies.
Now some swing from Labour to Conservative in the North-East is likely - more likely than elsewhere in the UK, I'd have guessed - and it's conceivable that the Labour vote might go down to as low as perhaps 36%; this is the level where "miles ahead" is defined such that a third party might be able to pick up the third seat by getting over 18%, but the competition for third place apparently looks as hot as for first place, so it's not looking likely. Surely the Lib Dems will do better than their previous 12% as the natural home for anti-Labour pro-Europeans, but there don't seem to be many of them around these days.
Incidentally, the fact that our region only has three seats (the same number as Northern Ireland, I might add) means that fifth place and onwards are really only playing to try to save their £5,000 deposit. Happily the score required is just 2½%, so the Greens will be OK, Respect might be, the BNP will die horribly and the local independent Independent will at least have had a good time. I idly wonder whether a combined Yorkshire-and-North-East region, possibly bequeathing Humberside to the East Midlands, would have practical advantages other than permitting more accurate representation of substantial-minority viewpoints.
So, the question again: Greens to make sure they save their deposit, Lib Dems because they have a pipe-dream of the third seat or Labour to make sure the region doesn't collapse to the Conservatives? The Tories are resurgent because people seem to like Michael Howard for a reason I cannot begin to understand. No matter who's in charge, the Conservatives remain the party which want to make rich people richer and they don't care how they do it, people. Labour may have taken several dubious steps on the war, but Conservatism remains as repugnant to my tastes as ever. (I know there are some proud conservatives, of either capitalisation, on my Friends list, though; a good-natured rude hand gesture to you all.)
Labour have a glossy document, but it mostly concentrates on what Labour MEPs have done (to be fair, there's lots of stuff I like here) and weak anti-Tory scare stories. The bottom-right of page 16 has a list of some of the things that "Labour MEPs are continuing to press for", but no detail, no specific policy proposals. The Liberal Democrats' manifesto: mmmm-mmmm. I don't like the scary Charles Kennedy picture on the front, don't much care for the information about MEP's past achievements or the reasons why Europe is good for the UK. We get to the beef, though, the LibDem aspirations; lots of detail, but tiny writing. Unfortunately there's a tendency to slip back to "the EU should" rather than "Liberal Democrats will" or "Liberal Democrats would" in a few places. It's often disappointingly waffly and non-specific, but the best of a bad bunch.
Let's think about the domestic consequences of the vote. The Conservatives don't really care about how well they do, they just need Labour to "do badly". Despite everything, I still like Tony Blair and think that he is the best leader for the country from the realistic candidates at the moment. I don't follow him blindly and don't support his party with all its mistakes, though I have sympathy for many of its principles. The Conservatives cannot be permitted to think that they're getting any sort of momentum. The Liberal Democrats can be pleased with even modest gains and Charles Kennedy should continue to be a popular leader, which is what they need. As much as I hate saying this and like supporting smaller parties on principle, the Greens will not get significantly more respect from polling 6%-8% in this region rather than 3%-5%, so I'm tempted to linger longer on the aspects of the manifesto that I don't agree with.
Crikey, this is tough.
(Other comments: with the postal vote, you can put your ballot paper into envelope A upside-down "by mistake" and the barcode and number will still be visible as requested. Hooray! Additionally, interesting to note that the turnout is still small even in countries with compulosry voting.)