Ledgers, Proxies & European Elections

Whilst the UK government has a stated intention to leave the European Union, elections for the European Parliament were held on Thursday 23rd May. Results were announced on Sunday 26th. Different people, journalists and groups have used these results to allocate the 2019 votes to the 2016 referendum choices of Remain and Leave.

This article examines different approaches of these allocations, and highlights difficulties and false conclusions derived from these approaches.

2019 European Election Results

The Brexit Party were newly formed for this election, led by former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage. The Brexit Party has 29 MEPs, and received 31.6% of votes cast (in Great Britain). UKIP were left with 3.4% — a fall of 24 points from 2014.

The Liberal Democrats won a vote share of 20.3%, and 16 MEPs — rising from just one MEP in 2014. Labour and the Conservatives had starkly reduced vote share and MEPs. The Greens, SNP (up 9 points in Scotland) and Plaid Cymru (up 4 points in Wales) also made substantial gains against their 2014 performance. Change UK achieved 3.4% of the GB vote, and failed to win a single MEP.

It is the percentage point change, and not ‘percent change’, as the BBC coverage on election night described. (Source: BBC)

‘Remain won/Leave won’

The statistic that some people really want is the Remain and Leave shares in another referendum. These European Parliament elections are then used as a proxy, with party vote shares being summed together by their EU exit policies.

The BBC produced the following graph:

This graph curiously decides not to label the Conservatives as a ‘pro-Brexit’ party, despite the Conservative government having spent the last three years organising and conducting a negotiation to leave the European Union.

Next up, Sky News does a similar calculation, but does assign the Conservatives to Leave and Labour to Remain.

It is the Labour allocation that highlights the difficulties: most (2015) Labour voters chose Remain in 2016, and the party became more Remain-heavy in 2017. However, Labour’s policy is to leave the European Union (potentially under the condition of holding another referendum on the matter).

A Facebook post on the Bow Group decides that Labour should be assigned to Leave. Additionally, some of the figures are slightly out, and Plaid Cymru are missing from the ‘Remain’ ledger.

Richard Corbett MEP, now the lone Labour representative for Yorkshire & The Humber, states there has been a “clear swing” from Leave to Remain (in terms of MEPs):

From 2014 to 2019, Labour lost 10 MEPs, and the Conservatives lost 15. ‘Smaller’ parties — with clearer stances on exiting the EU — grew at the expense of Labour and the Conservatives. This is about polarisation: the Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru gained 20 MEPs. The Brexit Party had 5 more MEPs than UKIP achieved in 2014.

Allocation, Allocation, Allocation

Similar exercises have been conducted where the votes for each party are divided between Leave and Remain. This adds a new layer of difficulty. For example:

This was seen on a Facebook post, but the author is unknown.

The splits between Remain and Leave are from YouGov’s post-referendum polling in 2016 (re-weighted to match the result). In those surveys, parties refer to votes cast in the 2015 General Election. This is not reflective of how the parties are currently composed, nor how people would vote now.

Alternately, we can allocate party votes without any reference to supporting analysis:

‘Brexit Party made almost zero gain’

Mike Galsworthy, who runs Scientists for EU, claimed that:

If you actually go back and look at 2014, and count up all of the assorted nationalistic pro-Brexit parties that were there at the time, then you will see. There was: [An] Independence from EU, BNP, English Democrats, No2EU, We Demand a Referendum, Britain First. They are all a bundle as well. If you bundle into UKIP, you see Brexit Party hasn’t made any gains whatsoever.

We can do that exact comparison. Dr Galsworthy appears to omit UKIP and the English Democrats from his 2019 summation. When included, the summed vote share for these parties (for Great Britain) was 31.4% in 2014, rising to 35.1% in 2019.

These vote figures do not include Northern Ireland, which uses Single Transferable Vote rather than d’Hondt PR.

Second Order

The European Parliament elections are a second-order election in British politics — with lower turnout (37% in 2019), volatile voters more open to protest, and a more proportional voting system. This was not another second referendum on the UK’s EU membership. There are severe limitations in treating these election results as a pseudo-referendum: party choice and voter motivation are not so easily distilled.

There are good indications of differential turnout between 2016 Remain and Leave voters. Turnout increased more in Remain-heavy local authorities. Additionally, the Lord Ashcroft Polls post-election survey found 50% of voters had chosen Remain in 2016, and 45% had backed Leave. (Lord Ashcroft Polls is not a polling company, but uses BPC members for its internet fieldwork.)

The missing 1% could not remember how they voted. (Photo: Lord Ashcroft Polls)

Both Labour and the Conservatives lost vote share across all local authorities, as votes polarised towards clearer options of the pro-Remain parties and the Brexit Party plus UKIP.

Understanding what people think about leaving the European Union involves survey analysis, rather than reading runes based on party vote shares in a second-order election.

You should really should follow Will Jennings on Twitter. (Photo: Will Jennings)

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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