The European Elections are upon us, and of all the UK regions, the one that could give us the best idea about the prospects of each of the major parties could well be the South West. We didn’t expect these elections, and so, much like the snap election two years ago they will be a test of how well parties can switch from a local campaign to a national one, and if local elections are still a good indicator of national appeal and success.
The South West region has 6 MEPs all currently representing different parties, although that’s admittedly due to recent defections. Five years ago, UKIP topped the poll with 32% and 484,184 votes, giving them two seats. The Conservatives came second, with 433,151 votes (29%) which also gave them two MEPs. Labour came third with 206,124 votes (14%) and one MEP and the Greens gained the final MEP with 166,447 (11%), although they were only six thousand votes ahead of the Liberal Democrats. The BNP, the English Democrats and a UKIP splinter group called An Independence from Europe also ran candidates in the region. Since 2014 both UKIP MEPs have defected, with one sitting as an independent and another joining the Brexit Party. One of the Tory MEPs, Julie Girling has joined The Independent Group.
The region itself is the largest geographical region in England, and consists of 55 Westminster constituencies. Of these, one is held by the Liberal Democrats (Bath), another is held by TIG (Totnes), seven are held by Labour and the rest are all Conservative-held. The largest city is Bristol, with other major population centres including Swindon, Bath, Exeter and Plymouth. Oddly, the South West includes Gibraltar for European Elections, which is likely to be one of the few Labour/Lib Dem regional battlegrounds. The South West also is home to a number of key marginal seats which could decide who forms the next government, including Filton and Bradley Stoke and Kingswood in the Bristol area, Swindon North and Swindon South, Plymouth Moor View and Cambourne and Redruth. Alongside the parties running everywhere, there are three Independent candidates which I won’t discuss here as they have no chance of winning a seat. I personally have no idea how this election will go, and for those of you familiar with US style election predictions, at least one of these seats is a toss-up. But, and this is a big but, this is what I think will happen, although obviously there are a range of election night scenarios.
UKIP are probably in their death throes. From topping the poll nationwide and in the South West in 2014, they will almost certainly lose both seats they won in 2014, although their MEPs have already left. The only minor note is that Carl Benjamin, aka inexplicably-named YouTube ‘comedian’ Sargon of Akkad, is second on their list.
If you believe the polls, the Conservatives are in freefall. The South West is still a region where they should do well, but they are in retreat from their high points of 2015 and 2016. They should still hold their two seats, but how their vote holds up, and crucially if the ex-Tory voters go for Labour, the Brexit Party, or someone else, will probably determine the allocation of seats for the other parties. Expect their vote to hold or even go up in rural areas and places that voted Leave, and collapse in Bristol and Exeter. If they can eke out wins in Plymouth and Swindon, which is not beyond the realms of probability, that’ll probably be their best case scenario.
The Lib Dems are hoping they can get back the seat they narrowly lost to the Greens in 2014. This strategy requires them to basically replace the Greens as the “non Labour left wing protest vote” in Bristol, which they failed to do in 2017, whilst reverting to pre-2015 performance in the far south-west, which they also failed to do. Former Bristol West MP Stephen Williams is third on their list, but even with that I can’t see them winning a seat.
TIG will be disappointed that their “star candidate” Rachel Johnson, sister of Boris and Jo, has failed to attract them any press – indeed the only press they seem to be getting is over their failure to vet their other candidates. The South West is an area where if Change were a thing ten years ago they probably would have done quite well, but with the South West voting to leave and any potential TIG vote in the Bristol area seemingly either going to the Greens or Labour. I expect them to come fourth at best.
The Brexit Party
How well the Brexit party do in the South West will probably be more indicative of their fortunes than some other areas – for all the talk of northern Labour heartlands moving away from Labour, the Brexit Party may be better placed to win support in places like Plymouth, where voters liked both Tony Blair and David Cameron but backed Leave in 2016 (and swung back towards Labour at the 2017 election), and they are ahead in the national polls. However, with that said, there are places in the South West that you may think the Brexit Party will do well in, such as Swindon, that may well swing against them – in Swindon’s case because Honda are threatening to close the manufacturing plant blaming Brexit (much like the more publicised Nissan plant in Sunderland). How these areas vote will most likely tell us how both the Brexit party have done and what we can expect from battleground areas in the South West at the next general election. Ann Widdecombe is the “interesting name” on the party list, because it seems like every party has to have one in the South West.
The Green Party
Surprisingly for an election held under PR, the Green Party may find themselves at a disadvantage here with the electoral system used. This is because the party lists are closed, rather than open, meaning the voter has to vote for a party list rather than individual candidates. Were the lists open, I’d feel much more confident that hero of FBPE twitter Molly Scott Cato would be re-elected. Scott Cato’s claim to fame is that she was recently arrested for breaking into a Belgian airbase (and also claims to have only taken one flight since being elected MEP, to Central America). Given the fact that they only won their seat narrowly last time, they might feel nervous for Scott Cato. Add to this the relative implosion of the Green vote in their Bristol stronghold, where they lost council seats to Labour in 2016 and went from a close second in Bristol West in 2015 to third place and 37,000 votes behind Labour in 2017, and you can see why Scott Cato may have cause to worry.
More than any other party, Labour are the big unknown here. They currently hold one MEP, Clare Moody, and on a very good night would double that, which would mean the banter-era election of Andrew Adonis MEP. Labour’s path to a second seat is fairly broad: there are lots of ways they could do it, but there’s little room for slack in each path. If Labour can do very well (>100,000 votes) in Bristol itself and either win the surrounding suburb seats of Kingswood and Filton and Bradley Stoke or only narrowly lose them, and they can perform similarly in Swindon, Exeter and Plymouth then they could sneak that second seat. The problem for Labour is that Bristol is only roughly a tenth of the population of the region (think New Orleans in Louisiana rather than Detroit in Michigan), meaning that just running up the score in the city isn’t enough, they need to do well in the suburbs and other less Labour areas . What may help them amongst Remainers is that four of the seven Labour MPs in the region are part of the People’s Vote campaign, and all seven voted for a public vote during the parliamentary indicative votes.
If recent political history has taught us anything it is that electoral outcomes are unpredictable. But perhaps, from a Westminster perspective, the things most worth looking out for in the south west on May 23rd will be how different results manifest across the urban/rural divide, and how well Labour and the Tories do in the Bristol suburbs.