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Recently, in the United Kingdom European Union Parliamentary elections, the Brexit Party won the most seats, with 30.5% of the vote. There are claims from Nigel Farage and others that the Brexit Party would also win in a snap general election were one to be called while others commented that EU elections are often "protest votes".

Recent polling does suggest that the Brexit Party has a slight lead, seemingly surging after their EU elections win.

In the 2014 EU elections, UK Independence Party similarly won the most seats, with 26.6% of the vote. However, in the following year, it only won 1 seat in the House of Commons, with 12.6% of the vote.

As such,

  • Is it true that British voters are more likely to back the main parties in general elections than in European Parliament elections?
    • In other words, is UKIP's performances in the 2014 EU elections / 2015 general election cited above the norm or an outlier?
  • Why are British voters more likely to back the main parties in general elections than in European Parliament elections?
  • Is there any evidence to suggest that the Brexit Party might face the same fate as what UKIP faced in 2015 should a snap general election be called this / next year or does the Brexit Party have a real chance at forming the government (evidence can be polling-based, etc.)?
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    This question is slightly different in overall scope, so I won't claim it's an exact duplicate, but answers to it are fairly likely to be close to those for politics.stackexchange.com/questions/32627/… particularly for your first and second questions. – origimbo Jun 14 at 17:16
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As far as UKIP is concerned, their performance in the European elections consistently outperformed their performance in General Elections from about 1999 till 2015. After which, their vote collapsed in both.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and Labour have tended to do a bit worse (with occasional exceptions) in the European elections than in General Elections.

It follows that, all other things being equal, the Brexit Party share would probably be noticeably smaller in a snap General Election. However, it's not clear that other things are equal. For example, both Conservative and Labour shares, in the most recent Europeans, were much lower than the previous General Election and the Lib Dem's share was much higher. This does not follow the general trend.

The prevailing view is that the electorate was heavily polarised to pro and anti Brexit with the Brexit Party and Lib Dems being seen as proxies for the 2 outlooks.

There are 3 other variables that affect things substantially.

Turn out is usually a lot lower in European elections and that was in evidence in the recent one. It's probably fair to say that the UK electorate considers them less important than General Elections.

Also, the First Past the Post system used in General Elections heavily penalises smaller parties as evidenced by 12% UKIP share only materialising into one MP. So even if the Brexit Party was to maintain a healthy UK wide vote, how that would translate into seats is unclear.

Finally, it's likely that Brexit would need to dominate the agenda for the Brexit Party to maintain its vote. If the election were to happen in the next couple of months then that would probably be a reasonable supposition. I wouldn't want to predict what the UK political landscape is going to look like beyond the summer though. There are far too many variables at play.

  • The UK uses a version of First Past the Post in EU elections as well. Rather than counting the votes in the entire UK (like the Germans do for their EU elections), this is done per region and seats are awarded per region. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Jun 14 at 18:19
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    @JJJ It's not fair to call that a "version" of First Past the Post. It's less proportional (nationwide) than making the entire country a constituency, but it's much more proportional than a FPTP Westminter election, and votes are counted very differently. (Also N.B. the UK actually uses two different systems for EU elections: Great Britain uses D'Hondt closed list, while Northern Ireland uses Single Transferable Vote) – owjburnham Jun 14 at 18:27
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    @owjburnham true, but it's not one-person-one-vote and suffers from similar problems. For example, Change UK got 571,846 votes with 0 seats and the Brexit party got 29 seats with 5,248,533 (i.e. +-181K votes per seat). You can see pretty clearly that some might find those numbers a bit unfair. Now, you're not going to get perfect results with a one-person-one-vote system either, but you're not going to see such large differences in 'votes per seat'. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Jun 14 at 18:36
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    @JJJ One-person one-vote may not be the best language to use, given that it's still a system where everyone votes once. Indeed that's a criticism made against other proportional and preferential systems such as additional member schemes and the alternative vote. – origimbo Jun 14 at 18:44
  • @origimbo yea, apparently I misunderstood that term (for quite a long time). I always thought it referred to a system where any two votes are interchangeable in terms of worth (e.g. in case of a popular vote for the US presidential election). So that's what I meant, but if I understand correctly now it merely means roughly proportional representation per district. It's a bit weird though that the two countries sometimes referred to as the role models of democracy (the US and the UK) both don't have that (what I originally meant) in their national elections. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Jun 14 at 18:51
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Is it true that British voters are more likely to back the main parties in general elections than in European Parliament elections? [...]

Why are British voters more likely to back the main parties in general elections than in European Parliament elections?

I suspect more specific analyses exist on British elections, but the general theory is that EU elections are "second order" (less at stake) than national elections in all EU countries. Consequently this theory predicts a few effects:

  • The government's party usually loses ground
  • Big parties generally lose ground to smaller parties
  • Turnout is lower than in national general elections

The first two are [posited] because such second-order elections often become a protest vote (against the government and also against "the system").

There's some EU-wide empirical data validating this theory with respect to party size:

enter image description here

Fig. 3 plots party gains/losses in European Parliament elections (compared to the preceding national general election performance) against party vote-shares in the preceding national general election, for all parties in all elections between 1979 and 2009. The cubic effect of party size on party performance in European Parliament elections is clearly visible at the aggregate level: with very large parties losing more votes than medium-sized parties, and small parties gaining votes compared to both medium-sized parties and large parties (cf. Marsh, 1998; Hix and Marsh, 2007). Also, although this effect is stronger for governing parties than opposition parties, it is nonetheless apparent, though weaker, for opposition parties too. In other words, large parties lose votes in European Parliament elections, while small parties gain votes, regardless of whether these parties are in government or opposition.

The following is a somewhat dated analysis of UKIP's electorate, but probably still valid:

In this study we employ a unique large scale dataset of UKIP supporters surveyed before the 2009 EP elections to provide new insights into their social and attitudinal profile. [...]

We [...] find that UKIP voters are divided into two distinct groups: ‘strategic’ supporters who only vote UKIP at EP elections and ‘core’ supporters who also vote UKIP at Westminster elections. Strategic supporters appear principally to be Conservative voters registering their hostility to the EU while core supporters are a poorer, more working class and more deeply discontented group who more closely resemble supporters of the BNP and of European radical right parties (Ford & Goodwin 2010; Mudde 2007).

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This has not always been the case. Throughout the 1980s, the share of voters voting for the two main parties was consistent between general elections and European elections.

1999 was the first year that elections to the European Parliament in Great Britain used proportional representation, and it was in the subsequent election in 2004 that the vote share of the two main parties fell below 50% for the first time. This suggests that the difference in electoral system likely a factor; after all, the common argument along the lines of "A vote for UKIP will result in a Labour government" (for example) makes less sense in a proportional-representation system than it does in a first-past-the-post system.

enter image description here

As for your question on whether the Brexit Party will face a similar fate to UKIP in the next general election, it is simply far too early to say at this stage. The next election is not scheduled until 2022, and it is likely that the way in which Brexit is resolved will be the biggest catalyst for the Brexit Party's performance, in one direction or the other.

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Is it true that British voters are more likely to back the main parties in general elections than in European Parliament elections?

This can be hypothesised but it's hard to prove. In recent years, it seems at least as likely (to me) that the swings in results of different elections are representative of actual swings in opinion in the country. This is hard to counter because the elections are held at different moments in time. If it's on the same day then people are more likely to not change their opinion in between votes (compared to there being a year or so in-between).

In other words, is UKIP's performances in the 2014 EU elections / 2015 general election cited above the norm or an outlier?

It's unclear what you are referring to here. It seems that the Brexit party has been very successful in the 2019 EU election. That can be explained by failure of the other parties to go about implementing the Brexit that they (those parties, the Conservatives and Labour) have supported (e.g. by voting for triggering article 50).

Why are British voters more likely to back the main parties in general elections than in European Parliament elections?

It is unclear that this is established. Like I said in point 1, it might just be swings in opinion over time rather than people voting differently based on which election there is.

Is there any evidence to suggest that the Brexit Party might face the same fate as what UKIP faced in 2015 should a snap general election be called this / next year or does the Brexit Party have a real chance at forming the government (evidence can be polling-based, etc.)?

It seems that UKIP voters (wanting a Brexit, per the name UKIP) went to the Conservative party because its leader David Cameron promised a referendum on Brexit. Given that leavers won that referendum and steps were taken (but not yet completed) to initiate leaving, there is little reason for Brexit (the leaving, not the party) supporters to go back to UKIP or the Brexit party.

The date that was promised, the 29th of March 2019 has not been met. That day has passed but the UK is stil in the EU. That is the basis on which mister Farage has launched the Brexit party with successful electoral results. Had the UK left on the 29th of March then many of the Brexit party supporters would be satisfied with the other parties' approach to Brexit and they would not switch to another party.

So, as of yet, there does not seem to be evidence that the same reasons why UKIP went down in the polls before apply to the Brexit party now. Once the UK has left and the other parties regain the confidence of the electorate, then that fate might come. Whether that's inevitable is not clear, they might also stick with the Brexit party (but that's pure speculation, I'm not suggesting either way and there might even be different parties coming out on top, e.g. a pro-remain party).

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Perhaps try restating the thesis. Rather than

Is it true that British voters are more likely to back the main parties in general elections than in European Parliament elections?

Ask if it is more likely that the single issue parties with manifestos directly related to the question of a European government are more likely to do well in an election for a European government than parties with a robust and generally united domestic manifesto that are split on the European question.

Both Labour and the Conservatives are split on the Leave/Remain question. The Brexit party is not. Someone who supports Leave may prefer the clean Brexit position in a European election. Meanwhile, in a domestic election, the same person might prefer the domestic manifesto of either the Conservatives or Labour.

Another way of saying this is that for the European seats, their position on spending more on National Health doesn't matter. While for domestic seats, it does.

European elections are proportional while parliamentary elections are first-past-the-post in single member districts. Proportional elections favor smaller, more focused parties than do FPTP elections. I.e. from that alone one should expect the main parties to do worse in European elections than in domestic United Kingdom elections.

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Is it true that British voters are more likely to back the main parties in general elections than in European Parliament elections?

The reason is rather the voting system. In general elections it is a 'winner takes it all' for the seat. Voting for small parties are the 'lost votes', as they don't matter in the result.

In European Parliament elections the seats are by percentage of the list result. So voting for small parties are not 'lost votes', as they do matter in the result.

So 'winner takes it all' systems tend to have only two major parties.

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Single-issue parties can only flourish when there is a single issue.

As Joe C's graphic shows, there was a build up of support for single-issue UKIP while Brexit was still an issue. Once the issue had been resolved (except in the alternative-reality political world of some remainers) there was no rational reason to vote for a party which had no declared policies on anything that will be politically relevant going forward.

The situation with the recent European elections was rather different. Given the reality of Brexit the actual choice of representatives was for practical purposes irrelevant, but "the rules" demanded that a pointless election was held. As such, there was not reason NOT to vote for a party whose only purpose was to declare that the election was pointless!

One can draw an analogy between the Brexit party and the Sinn Fein candidates standing the UK parliamentary seats in Northern Ireland, who are elected on the single policy that they will never actually take their seats when elected, because they do not consider the UK parliament to be the legitimate government of the region they represent.

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    Your answer doesn't make sense. If Brexit has been "resolved" and there's no reason to vote for a single-issue party whose single issue has been resolved, why did the Brexit Party get more votes than any other? – David Richerby Jun 15 at 12:28
  • The thing my graphic also shows is that UKIP's vote share has, since the turn of the century, always been far higher (both in percentage terms and in terms of actual votes cast) in a European election than in the general election which follows it. And I can't see why Brexit would be a big issue in 2004 but not in 2005. – Joe C Jun 15 at 14:41

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