Embarrassed for EU

The parties are embarrassed by them, the candidates are unfamiliar and the resulting MEP jobs are potentially zero-hours contracts. But there's still reason to vote in the European elections

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Four of the North West’s eight MEPs and four from six in Yorkshire and Humber have got the chance of an unexpected extension of their job now the two regions will be going to the polls for the European elections on 27 May. Most experts expect the two main parties – especially the Conservatives – to get a good kicking from those voters who do turn out.

The elections are only taking place because Brexit didn’t happen on 29 March and parties have had little time for preparation.

Conservative Saj Karim and Labour’s Theresa Griffin, Julie Ward and Wajid Khan, current North West MEPs who have decided not to clear their Brussels desks, may be glad of the unexpected elections.

In Yorkshire and Humber, Conservative MEPs John Procter and Amjad Bashir, Richard Corbett for Labour and Mike Hookem of Ukip will share similar sentiments as they stand again. But the suspicion is that their parties aren’t looking forward to them quite so much.

“I can’t think of any previous case of nationwide elections being held in the UK that both of the major parties really would have desperately rather avoided,” says Stuart Wilks-Heeg, senior lecturer in politics at Liverpool University. “These are exceptional circumstances.

“The Conservatives and Labour in particular will be very nervous about asking voters to go back to the ballot box again so soon after local elections in which, quite uniquely, both main parties performed poorly.”

“Parties couldn’t go through the normal administrative process of selecting candidates.”

The short timeframe for preparation has brought its own dynamics to the elections. They weren’t meant to happen but, at the same time, didn’t exactly come out of the blue.

“Parties couldn’t go through the normal administrative process of selecting candidates,” says Victoria Honeyman, British politics lecturer at Leeds University. “They’ve had to shorten and bypass processes for a truncated form of selection and that’s been problematic in some cases – some candidates are untested.”

New parties Change UK and the Brexit Party have had to select candidates from a standing start while Ukip, diminished as a political force, will have struggled to find candidates. In the North West, former Ukip leader and MEP Paul Nuttall defected to the Brexit Party but isn’t standing again anyway, because he doesn’t believe the elections should be taking place.

“The emergence of these new parties has brought some new faces into frontline politics, resulting in a handful of semi-celebrity candidates for the European elections and, inevitably, some whose possibly questionable past actions and pronouncements are now being heavily scrutinised,” says Wilks-Heeg.

On the other hand, Labour and the Conservatives have some stalwarts to fall back on.

“Actually, the ballot is full of strong candidates, partly because UK members have always contributed a lot to the EU Parliament,” says Ben Bowman, lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. “For example, Theresa Griffin has a tremendous track record for bringing European funds to the North West. Sajjad Karim is vice-president of the EU Parliament’s anti-racism and diversity group and has served since 2004.

“There are good candidates. It’s just that the main parties come across as a bit embarrassed that it’s all happening.”

If the kicking of Labour and the Conservatives does materialise, from what direction will the boots be swinging?

Bowman says the received wisdom is that pro-Leave protest parties like the Brexit Party and Ukip will do well. “But at the local elections this month, we were surprised at the huge surge in support for the Lib Dems and the Greens. Local elections are different to European elections, of course, but it’s possible the Remain parties – especially the Greens – could surprise us if they can motivate voters to get to the polls.”

Whether any of it matters is a different question. Honeyman questions just how committed any elected MEP, no matter how high calibre, can be if they might be out of a job once more in a matter of months as the new Brexit deadline of 31 October looms.

“They’d be foolish not to have an eye on the future,” she says. And overshadowing the European elections is the possibility of a general election if Brexit stalemate cannot be broken.

Nevertheless, the European elections could provide useful pointers if it does come to domestic elections, says Wilks-Heeg.

“If a general election is to break the Brexit deadlock, it really needs to return a clear majority for one or other of the two main parties. That was already looking unlikely, but if it is clear that support for the Conservatives and Labour has dropped significantly since the high water mark of 2017, it is virtually inconceivable that either could secure a majority in a fresh election.”

The stirrings of the far right in these elections are not confined to the UK

Despite the parties’ embarrassment, the unfamiliar candidates and the potentially zero-hours nature of MEPs’ employment contracts, turnout matters, not least because Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the far-right extremist who calls himself Tommy Robinson, is standing as an independent in the North West – against Ukip, the party he advises, and for, it would seem, being pelted with milkshakes.

The stirrings of the far right in these elections are not confined to the UK, points out Honeyman, and the EU is worried about extremist parties gaining support in everywhere from Hungary and Poland to Germany and Spain. But in 2009 it was the North West region that elected the BNP’s Nick Griffin after his party won 8 per cent of the votes.

With the proliferation of right-wing parties standing this year, Yaxley-Lennon’s potential support could be split and his chances are low. As Paul Mason notes: “There’s only so many fascists and boneheads in Manchester and the region. There’s a strong under-current for them but remember it’s a crowded market.”

Polling by anti-racist campaign group Hope Not Hate suggests only 9 per cent of voters have a favourable or very favourable view of him – the same as the national figure. But a low turnout gives him a slim chance.

“Despite his extremely high unfavourable rating, low turnout benefits the extremists and Tommy could still sneak in if too few people come out to vote,” says Nick Lowles, Hope Not Hate CEO. “So it’s vital that if people don’t want the far right to be their Euro representative, they get out to vote.”

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