All elections are equal but some elections are more equal than others. Take the round of locals earlier this month. Does it matter that both the Tories and Labour were punished at the polls? Of course. Does it matter as much as the General Election result in 2017? Of course not.
How, then, should we assess the relative importance of the forthcoming European Parliamentary elections? Well the first thing to consider is this – elections vary not only in the quantum of their import but also in the type of significance that they play. In 2005 the Conservative Party lost their third election in a row but made progress and gained seats, as did the Lib Dems. This did not alter the shape of the Government or the direction of national policy. But it convinced Tory members to select a ‘moderniser’ to lead them and it gave the Lib Dems more seats and more money than they had enjoyed previously. These things mattered. They were the ingredients from which the 2010 coalition cake was baked.
So, these euro elections will not change our Government or – in the very immediate term – our national policy. But they might be important for other reasons. One, the likely success of the Brexit Party could have a decisive impact on the psyche of the Conservative Party. The small but powerful clique of ‘No Deal’ backbenchers will feel vindicated by a Farage triumph and will demand that the Government dress in Nigel’s clothes to ‘save the Tories’. Urged on by the increasingly frustrated and angry grassroots, these siren voices will be difficult to simply dismiss. In alliance with more moderate but no less despairing colleagues they may well force May from office. ‘Please do not waste this time’ pleaded Donald Tusk when he granted the U.K. an Article 50 extension until 31 October. A Tory leadership contest running through the summer may not have been quite what he had in mind.
Meanwhile, Labour looks likely to come second in the poll. Again, hardly an earth shattering result. Labour is used to coming second these days. But these elections have catalysed a number of tensions within Labour that you can expect to see spilling over in the weeks following the results. The most obvious is the split between ‘respect the referendum’ types (an unusual alliance of the Leader himself and ordinarily Labour Right figures such as Lisa Nandy) and ‘People’s Vote’ advocates (drawn from the liberal and soft left wings). John McDonnell, usually such a solid ally of his friend and leader, is said to be on manoeuvres in support of a second referendum. The mood in the Parliamentary Labour Party is also moving decisively in the direction of another vote. It is becoming more and more difficult for Corbyn to hold the line.
For as long as talks with the government continue, Corbyn can put off coming down firmly for or against a referendum. But those talks are falling apart. And the party’s patience is wearing thin. Just as with Brexit itself, there is a sense that the mandate for the compromise policy agreed at last year’s Labour conference is expiring. Efforts are afoot to break the impasse by finding a way to give members another say, this side of summer. Watch this space, as they say.
The Euro elections have also exposed the deep distrust that exists between factions on the nominally pro-Corbyn Left of the Party. The battle over candidate selections – most heated in London – has ended friendships and reheated long- simmering tensions. Momentum is at odds with the unions and all are at odds with one element or another within the Leader’s office. For the first time in two years, Corbyn’s hegemony feels just a little less than inevitable and permanent. It is not over yet – not by a long shot – but it won’t go on forever, either.
As for the other parties, well Nigel Farage is busy recruiting General Election candidates for the Brexit Party and looks like he intends to capitalise fast on the momentum that will follow a big win next week. Rumours abound in Westminster that between five and ten Tory MPs are seriously considering defection (deja vu, anyone?). The beauty of it all, of course, is that until ‘No Deal, WTO Brexit’ is delivered Nigel’s mob doesn’t have to worry too much about other policies. It trumps (excuse the pun) everything else. And this Parliament will not deliver ‘No Deal, WTO Brexit’. So there will be mileage yet in Farage’s outrage bandwagon.
UKIP are falling back badly – though they will probably outpoll their current polling on the day. A weird mixture of offensive ‘comedy’ candidates, Nigel taking his thunder elsewhere and downright sinister policies mean that UKIP may well fail to deliver a single MEP.
And then we come to the Remainers. There are three main Remain parties fighting these elections – the Lib Dems, the Green Party and Change UK-The Independent Group. Both the Lib Dems and the Greens will do well – buoyed by a simple message and experienced campaign infrastructure. The Liberal Democrats are on a bit of a roll – having outperformed expectations at the locals – and are about to elect a new leader (likely to be Jo Swinson). Their fight back is no longer speculative, it is happening. The question is whether they can turn European and local success into more seats in Parliament when the time comes. Finally, Change UK-The Independent Group. As things stand it looks rather as though Change UK-The Independent Group are more of a danger to themselves than they are to ‘our broken politics’. They are fighting it out with UKIP at the bottom of the pack.
So, back to the question, do these elections matter? The answer is yes. They will shape the internal politics of both main parties in their aftermath and they will – in that way – shape this country’s Brexit debate. They may be the end of the end for Theresa May and the beginning of the end for Jeremy Corbyn. But what they won’t do is change the arithmetic in the Parliament that actually decides on Brexit. They won’t make Labour MPs want to do a deal with the Tories. They won’t make Tory MPs give up on ‘WTO’. They matter, of course. But do they offer a way out of the impasse? Of course not.