Kicking the Rascals? Euro-elections and long-term trends in government support

Professor Charles Pattie comments on the upcoming Euro-election and asks if the political tide, for the time being, is turning in UKIPs favour.

Additional research by Laura Palfreyman, Peaks College, Sheffield.

I know this puts me in a very small and rather anorak-y minority, but I must admit I am beginning to experience election fever as the 2014 European Parliament election approaches (I am writing this in late April 2014, so there’s a little less than a month to go now till polling day: how will I contain my excitement?). All joking aside, the upcoming Euro-poll promises to be a corker, and is likely to send political shockwaves around the continent. Signs at the moment are that, in the aftermath of the post-2008 economic meltdown, the Eurozone crisis, and prolonged periods of austerity policies, mainstream political parties in most EU member states face the threat of heavy defeats, while a rag, tag and bobtail army of fringe parties (some from the left, like the Greek Syriza party, and many more from the radical and even extreme right, such as the French Front National) look set to make major advances. The EU’s political map, as represented by the make-up of the European Parliament, is likely to be not just revised in the light of the election, but shaken up radically. Given how many of the rising parties hold strongly Eurosceptic views, there may be interesting times ahead for the EU: the Commission may have to deal with a far less compliant Parliament than in the past.

Here in the UK, too, the Euro-election is likely to produce some startling results with potentially far-reaching implications for British politics. UKIP, the main voice of hard-line British Eurosceptic sentiment, seems to be on the brink of a substantial electoral breakthrough. For the first time in years – possibly for the first time in the history of modern opinion polling in the UK – a minor party with no Westminster MPs has a good chance of winning a nation-wide election. For some months now, opinion polls asking about vote intentions in the upcoming Euro-elections have shown UKIP in a close second place behind Labour, with the Conservatives and (even more so) the Liberal Democrats in distant third and fourth places. In recent days, some polls have actually put UKIP in first place, ahead of Labour. A YouGov poll conducted on the 24th and 25th of April 2014 puts UKIP in the lead, with 31% saying they intend to vote for the party in the Euro-election (Labour are on 28%, the Conservatives on 19% and the Lib Dems on only 9%). In truth, this UKIP lead is within the margin of error for most polls: the true position at the moment could be a UKIP lead, or it could be a neck-and-neck battle for first place between Labour and Nigel Farage’s insurgent band. But even if UKIP do not end up on top in Britain’s Euro-election results, the sheer fact they are doing so very well is remarkable in itself.

But it might change – perhaps. On 29 April Patrick Mercer, Conservative MP for Newark indicated that he was resigning his seat with immediate effect, following a cash-for-questions scandal, and there will be a by-election in June. He won in 2010 with a majority of 16,152 over Labour (who won there in 1997, after which there was a sleaze investigation into its MP!): UKIP came a poor fourth with just 3.8 per cent of the votes and a lost deposit. Immediately there was speculation that Nigel Farage would stand there and could win, but next day he informed the world – on Radio 4’s Today programme – that he would not stand; he has no links in the area, wants to show that UKIP is not a one-man band, and wants to focus on the Euro election. John Humphreys suggested that he might be ‘frit’ of losing (a Lincolnshire term used by Margaret Thatcher against Denis Healey), which he of course denied. But will he lose face and perhaps Euro votes: as well as permitting David Cameron a great sigh of relief, he has given all of his opponents a charge to throw against him during the Euro campaign – or might that rebound on them and win him more sympathy votes?!

Of course, seasoned observers of the British political scene might be forgiven for shrugging at this point. As the figure below shows, UKIP has, in recent times, developed something of a track record for surging in Euro-elections (as it did in 2004 and 2009), only to see its vote share collapse to trivial levels in the subsequent national election. As a largely single-issue party before 2010, it capitalised on the only election in which its issue was centre-stage, but could not maintain that support when other issues came to the fore in General Elections. As recently as 2010, UKIP’s national vote share was a trivial 3%. The more world-weary among us might expect, therefore, that UKIP’s support will nosedive once again come the next UK election in 2015.


What is more, this fits a well-established pattern. Euro-elections, in truth, are not terribly serious contests (in the jargon, they are classic ‘second order’ elections). Not much is at stake: even after some extensions to its powers, the European Parliament is relatively toothless and is little known or understood outside small circles of specialists (go on, be honest: do you know which party group currently is the largest in the Parliament, and can you name a policy for which it has been responsible?). As a result, it is hard to motivate voters to take part, and turnout is generally very low indeed (at the last Euro-election in 2009, only 34% of British electors voted: compare that to a turnout of 65% at the 2010 UK General Election) – and the parties try to do so by focusing on anything but the roles of MEPs; Labour is campaigning almost entirely on domestic issues such as the NHS, over which the European Parliament has no competence. Whereas in first-order elections, voters know they are making choices which might have major consequences for the direction of public policy (and hence they tend to weigh the options quite carefully), in second order contests they know they are not (so can be more willing to flirt with riskier and less well understood options). Linked to that, voters in second-order elections routinely vent their frustrations with the incumbent national government, safe in the knowledge that little or nothing rides on their votes. But this does not mean that incumbent governments must therefore lose the next national election: in fact, they often bounce back remarkably well. The Conservative government was defeated in the 1989 Euro-elections, but went on to win the 1992 UK election. Even at the height of New Labour’s popularity, it lost every Euro-election it fought while it was the national government (defeats in 1999, when it was very popular and the Conservatives very unpopular, 2004 and 2009). But it won the 2001 and 2005 UK elections relatively comfortably. Elections give the electorate a chance to pass judgement on the effectiveness of their government: If they don’t feel it has done well, they can vote it out of power: As a famous shorthand description of elections has it, they can kick the rascals out. In second-order elections, however, the vote cannot remove the national government. But these contests can be used to express discontent: if you can’t kick the rascals out, why not just kick them anyway?!

From this perspective, UKIP’s current poll success is nothing to get excited about. After all, this is ‘only’ a Euro-election. It doesn’t matter. No major policy decisions rest on the result. Minor parties like UKIP do well in a climate where voters have a chance to take a pain-free swipe at the incumbent government, but they routinely fade back to the margins when the ‘real’ election for the national parliament looms. That has certainly been the case in the past (older readers of this blog might remember the 1989 Euro-election, when the British Green party was – very briefly indeed – the third force in British politics, only to almost disappear again for the next 20 years). As the figure above shows, UKIP have exemplified this pattern for over 20 years.

That said, things might, just might, be different this time. First, the sheer size and longevity of UKIP’s current surge suggest something different is happening. Since the 2010 election, UKIP has gone from strength to strength. Its poll ratings have reached record highs – twice as high as the vote shares it enjoyed at its previous peaks in 2004 and 2009). As noted above, it is now in the extraordinary position for a minor party in the UK of having a very real chance of winning a nation-wide election. And it has been doing well in the polls for most of the last four years, even notching up a number of major by-election results (not winning but doing well enough to scare the major parties). Having Nigel Farage as leader undoubtedly helps too. In a party with few well-known faces, his media-savvy and engaging persona keeps the party in the spotlight and appeals to many voters fed up with the patently spun and carefully packaged images of politicians in the mainstream parties.

UKIP has also benefitted from the second major shift in the political landscape since 2010 – the Liberal Democrats’ decision to join the coalition government. From their founding in 1989, the Lib Dems provided a safe haven for voters who wanted to protest against the ‘big two’ of British politics, Labour and the Conservatives. They were soft, cuddly, not extreme, and safely out of office. With no record to defend, other than in some local governments, which they lauded, they could (and sometimes were) all things to all people. But, now they are part of the national government, they inevitably also share the rap for unpopular government decisions, many of which are anathema to a large number of 2010 Lib Dem voters: they are a repository of protest votes no longer (why protest against the government by voting for … the government?). In the ecological system of British politics, this frees an environmental niche: where do the ‘none of the above’ tendency among voters go when their previous safe bolthole has become ‘one of the above’? Step forward UKIP. Nigel Farage now has the protest vote ‘market’ almost to himself, at least in England. No surprise, then, that he has so frequently and so vocally lambasted all three main parties as ‘the establishment’ and as ‘all the same’.

Third, UKIP is no longer a one-policy party. While opposition to the EU still dominates party thinking, it has widened its appeal, linking its Euroscepticism to a range of issues around immigration, asylum policy, and so on. In doing so, it increasingly appeals to voters who feel left behind by the changes in British society over the last 30 years (as is shown in a superb new study of UKIP: Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, 2014, Revolt on the Right, London, Routledge). (This is also almost certainly also partly explains why Nigel Farage chose Sheffield to launch his party’s 2014 campaign: disgruntled traditional Labour voters who feel abandoned by New Labour are now an important demographic for UKIP.) This makes them potentially harder to dismiss come a general election.

But there is another, longer term shift which, largely unnoticed, has also changed the landscape of British politics, perhaps to the point where UKIP could benefit. As most politicians realise, support for incumbent governments tends to erode over time. The popularity they might enjoy when first elected, when people still have relatively high expectations of them, are unlikely to last. The longer the government is in office, the more difficult decisions it will have had to make, and the more voters, therefore, it is likely to have disappointed or angered (irrespective of whether it made the right decisions). This is, obviously enough, a core part of the democratic process since it is that loss of support which ensures that governments do not go on for ever: sooner or later, their support levels dip below the levels enjoyed by their rivals, and they are voted out of office, giving the other lot its chance and producing a regular alternation of government.

While this is true for individual governments, there is no necessary reason why it should result in a longer-term downward trend in support for governments as a whole. It is quite conceivable that there is no such long term trend. The hypothetical run of four elections shown in the following table illustrates the point.


The incumbent government going into each election (i.e. the party defending its record in office) is highlighted: Party B is the defending government in election 1 (which it wins) and in election 2 (which it loses to Party A). Party A, as the winner in election 2, is the incumbent going into election 3, (when it retains power), election 4 (it wins again), and election 5 (which it loses to Party B). Support for the incumbent government clearly declines from election to election, until it loses an election. However, and this is the important point, there is no long-term downward trend in support for the incumbent government. In the first three elections, the average vote for the incumbent government is 52% (i.e. (52+48+56)/3). And in the second block of three elections, it is also 52%. This is because, as support for the incumbent falls, there is a compensating rise in support for its main rival.

But this is not what we have seen over the last 30 or more years in the UK. The figure below graphs the percentage vote share won by the incumbent government at every nation-wide election (Westminster and Euro) since 1979. While there are fluctuations around the trend, the overall pattern is clear: no matter which party is the incumbent (Labour at the 1979 UK election, the Conservatives at every election from the 1979 European election till the 1997 UK election, and Labour at each contest from the 1999 Euro-election till the 2010 General Election), support for the incumbent government has generally gone down over time, from around 45% in 1979 to nearer 25% by 2009-10.



Over time, therefore, British governments have been losing support, and this is not being balanced out by compensating rises in support for the main opposition party: when it eventually defeats the incumbent and takes office, it tends to do so with a lower level of initial support than its rival had when that party last moved from opposition into government. When Mrs Thatcher defeated Jim Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979, her Conservative party took almost 45% of the national vote; the next reversal in partisan control of the UK government came 18 years later, when Tony Blair’s New Labour defeated John Major’s Conservative government, taking 44% of the vote in the process; and when Gordon Brown’s Labour government was ousted by David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010, the latter’s vote share was just 37%.

But the picture even more striking if we differentiate between Westminster elections (picked out in blue on the next figure) and Euro-elections (picked out in gold).


In both cases, there is a downward drift in support for the incumbent government over time, no matter which party is in office nationally. But the pattern is by quite some way strongest (as indicated by how close the points are to the trend line) and the fall in support over time for the incumbent government is largest (as indicated by the steepness of the slope) in the Euro-elections, and weakest and smallest in elections to Westminster (though even here the trend is downward).

The implication is clear. Over time, Britain’s voters are losing faith in their governments. Support levels for the incumbents are drifting down over time in all national contests. Given repeated chances to kick the rascals who are in office, British voters are kicking them harder and harder as the years go by. But we the voters are kicking particularly hard in the second-order Euro-elections. We seem to have developed an almost pathological desire to inflict more and more humiliating defeats on our governments in those elections where the result is purely symbolic.

So what are the implications? As the major parties increasingly lose ground, and as incumbents become progressively less popular, so more space opens up for gadfly insurgencies like UKIP’s. This has two effects. Even though the trend (thus far) is for the major parties – and especially the governing incumbents – to do better in Westminster than in Euro-elections, the fact that their support is trending down over time makes it harder and harder for them to laugh off minor party insurgencies. With over 30% of the electorate apparently preparing to vote UKIP in the upcoming elections, the ‘big’ parties suddenly do not look so big – and undoubtedly feel vulnerable. The temptation, increasingly, is to trim and adjust their positions to try and appeal to those voters they are losing to UKIP (hence, for instance, the Conservatives’ recurring attempts, since 2010, to talk tough on Europe and on immigration – so far to little apparent avail). Even if UKIP remains a minor or even invisible force in Westminster, the party’s growing capacity to frighten the mainstream parties may well squeeze important concessions from them.

And, as the UKIP insurgency grows, it gets easier to imagine them winning some Westminster seats. At the same time, as support for the major parties and for incumbent governments declines, hung parliaments and coalition governments look set to be a more common outcome of British General Elections. Put the two together, and the prospects grow for a situation in which a minority government may have to rely on parties like UKIP to get their business through the Commons. In such a scenario, UKIP is unlikely to offer such support without serious policy concessions, with far-reaching consequences for Britain’s position vis-à-vis the EU, for immigration policy, and so on. Given the British electorate’s current rascal-kicking, punitive frame of mind, UKIP could hold power in a future UK government out of all proportion to its actual public support.

No wonder Nigel Farage has a spring in his step at the moment. During the 1979 General Election, Labour’s Prime Minister James Callaghan sensed a major shift in the balance of British politics. “There are times,” he mused, “perhaps every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics…I suspect there is such a sea change, and it is for Mrs Thatcher”. Nigel Farage, whatever his capacities, is no Mrs T. But could it be that, for the time being at least, the political tide is running in his favour?



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