EU elections: What Labour and Tory collapse could mean in long-run – Ian Swanson

Ballot papers sit in a pile after being counted during the European Parliamentary elections count at the EICC. Picture: PA
Ballot papers sit in a pile after being counted during the European Parliamentary elections count at the EICC. Picture: PA
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One calculation suggested if the European vote was repeated at a general election the Tories would have no MPs at all and Labour only a handful, writes Ian Swanson.

The deep divide in UK politics over Brexit and Scotland’s clear preference for remaining part of the EU are both vividly reinforced in the results of the European elections.

Adding up the votes on the Leave and Remain sides produces an almost even split at UK level while in Scotland the explicitly pro-Remain parties – the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens and Change UK – together got more than 60 per cent.

The SNP finished way ahead of the rest of the field in Scotland and has boasted of being the best performing party anywhere in the UK with 38 per cent of the vote – but polling guru Professor John Curtice described the SNP result as “good, not astounding”, pointing out it was only one point better than the party’s share of the vote at the 2017 general election which was seen as a serious setback. The Nationalists now have three MEPs rather than two, but there had been suggestions they might get four.

The Brexit Party’s second place in Scotland with 15 per cent is quite an achievement for a new party, but in Edinburgh it came in fifth, outpolled by the Tories among others.

The Liberal Democrats – second across the UK and a close third in Scotland – were big winners on the Remain side. And their 14 per cent – double the vote last time – is seen as a huge boost to a party which has been in the doldrums ever since its coalition with the Tories. The Greens did better across the UK than they did in Scotland, perhaps squeezed by the SNP and the Lib Dems.

The Tories were reduced to fifth place across the UK with just nine per cent of the vote and four MEPs. But the party did not lose so badly in Scotland, where it got over 11 per cent and held on to its one MEP despite predictions to the contrary. Party sources claimed the threat of another independence referendum was a key factor in holding on to its vote – though it was still over five per cent down.

But there is no disguising the disaster experienced by Labour, losing both its seats and plummeting to fifth place and just nine per cent across Scotland – and a humiliating sixth place and only seven per cent in Edinburgh.

Labour’s highly-respected David Martin, the longest-serving MEP from the UK, found himself unceremoniously kicked out after 35 years. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was among many senior politicians saying they were sorry to see him go.

Change UK, the new pro-Remain party formed by disillusioned Labour and Tory MPs, failed to make a mark anywhere.

The election result is likely to help the hardline Brexiteer candidates in the Tory leadership contest, possibly making a no-deal Brexit more likely. And it is putting pressure on Labour to call unequivocally for a second referendum.

But what could the implications be for the longer term of the collapse in support for the two main UK parties?

One calculation suggested if the European vote was repeated at a general election the Tories would have no MPs at all and Labour only a handful.

The Brexit Party – which talks enthusiastically of challenging the UK’s two-party system – has made clear it now plans to contest Westminster and Holyrood elections. And while its support may not be as strong in these contests as in the European poll, it could still have an important effect on the outcome.

It may have been an election that was never meant to happen, but it could prove very influential.