Debating what should and should not be classed as the East Midlands is a contentious affair. The definition used by the UK government includes the counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Rutland and Northamptonshire as well as most of my home county of Lincolnshire (the rest is in Yorkshire and the Humber, for some reason.)
The politics of the region are varied, making it difficult to talk about the East Midlands as one coherent political entity. Northern parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire are linked closely to South Yorkshire, geographically, culturally and economically. Indeed, the original plans for the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority included significant parts of these two East Midlands counties, including Chesterfield, Retford and Worksop, before bickering between the different local authorities led to its boundaries being reduced to mirror those of South Yorkshire. Politically, these towns also behave like their South Yorkshire counterparts, with a strong Labour tradition that has been eroding over recent decades. On the other hand, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire tend to behave more like typical Tory shires, where the Conservatives are dominant outside of cities, larger towns and areas with a substantial student population.
At the parliamentary level the Conservatives are the main force in the region, winning 31 seats here in 2017 compared to Labour’s 15, but the dynamic is more complex at the European level.
The East Midlands is the second least populous of the regions of England and elects five MEPs. At the last European elections in 2014, UKIP received 368,734 votes (33%), the most in the region, followed by the Conservatives with 291,270 votes (26%), enough for both parties to be allocated two MEPs. Labour finished just behind the Conservatives with 279,363 votes (25%), securing the remaining MEP. The Greens and the Liberal Democrats were a long way back with 67,066 votes (6%) and 60,773 votes (5%) respectively.
You don’t need me to tell you that the political landscape has changed dramatically over these past five years, and it’s safe to say the results of this year’s election will not be the same as in 2014. The following is my best attempt at giving a snapshot of where the major parties find themselves in the East Midlands and what they can reasonably expect from this month’s vote. I’m going to cover the parties in an order which roughly correlates to how well I predict they’ll do this time round:
The Brexit Party
Despite only being founded earlier this year, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is currently the largest party in the East Midlands European Parliament delegation – having poached two of the region’s sitting MEPs, both previously members of UKIP. One of these recruits, Jonathan Bullock, is running for re-election and is in second place on the Brexit Party list. The lead candidate on the party’s list, however, is none other than Annunziata Rees-Mogg who, to be fair, has not been parachuted in and does in fact live in Lincolnshire.
Brexit will undoubtedly be one of the main drivers of people’s votes in the East Midlands, as it will be across the country. Five of the ten English local authorities with the highest percentage Leave vote are found in the East Midlands: Boston, South Holland and East Lindsey in Lincolnshire, Mansfield in Nottinghamshire and Bolsover in Derbyshire.
Indeed, the East Midlands as a whole proved fertile ground for the Leave campaign, with Leave winning almost 59% of the vote here in the referendum, its second highest mark in any region of the UK, just behind the figure in the West Midlands. The Brexit Party will be hoping to capitalise on the collapse of UKIP to become a conduit for pro-Brexit sentiment and thus win support primarily from 2014 UKIP and Tory voters.
The fact that the East Midlands only elects five MEPs is important because the D’Hondt method that is used for English, Scottish and Welsh elections to the European Parliament does tend to give an advantage to larger parties, especially when there is a relatively small number of members to be elected. This year, this should particularly benefit the Brexit Party, although Labour may also be able to profit from it as well.
Assuming that they can achieve the same sort of vote share as UKIP did in 2014, the Brexit Party should be fairly confident of securing two MEPs in the East Midlands and a third MEP is not even necessarily out of the question.
However, due to the nature of the D’Hondt method, the number of votes they need for a third MEP depends a great amount on the performance of the other parties. There are basically two main ways for them to get a third MEP: a) get over 1.5 times as many votes as Labour (which would result in the Brexit Party’s third member being elected before Labour’s second) and three times as many votes as the fourth largest party, or b) receive over three times the votes of the third-place party (presumably, although not necessarily the Conservatives). The second scenario might be a bit of a tall order given that I expect the Conservatives to do slightly better in the East Midlands than nationwide, but the first scenario seems very plausible. The Liberal Democrats could potentially be the proverbial spanner in the works here, though, as a strong showing for them in fourth (or even third) place would make it just that little bit harder for the Brexit Party to secure this additional member.
For the moment I therefore think two MEPs is the most likely outcome for the Brexit Party, although it would only take a small overperformance from them and a small underperformance from the Conservatives for this to change.
Labour has recently found itself in a bit of a tricky situation in the East Midlands. Think pieces have been written blaming Brexit and/or Corbyn for Labour’s troubles in the region, although those narratives are heavily oversimplified, to say the least. There are longer term trends at play here that intersect with the decline of Labour in the Northern post-industrial towns with which some parts of the East Midlands have a lot in common.
The recent local elections were a mixed bag for Labour. On the one hand the party lost control of North East Derbyshire Council directly to the Conservatives (the only such turnover in the country) and they also lost control of Bolsover District Council for the first time in its history, although here at least nobody else secured a majority. On the other hand, Labour held their own effectively in places like Lincoln and made impressive gains in High Peak and Amber Valley. The latter in particular was a surprising success for Labour this month, given the party’s disappointing showing there in the 2017 general election. Labour will have been very encouraged to see that they can still make gains in some pretty Brexit-y areas.
Labour has a large enough base in the region, especially in the bigger cities such as Leicester and Nottingham, that they should be able to take advantage of the Conservative collapse to finish solidly in second place here. This should mean they have no problem holding onto current MEP Rory Palmer’s seat and they may even have a chance of getting a second representative elected. If the Conservative vote collapses as dramatically as some expect, we could even see the odd scenario of Labour losing votes whilst gaining an additional MEP through simply declining less than its main rival.
Whether or not Labour can gain this second MEP will likely be a matter of small margins. At the moment I’m relatively optimistic, although the Brexit Party opening up a significant lead or if a Liberal Democrat surge reaching the East Midlands could be enough to dash Labour’s hopes.
Plainly put, these European elections may well end up being a disaster for the Conservatives. Some in the party have expressed fears that the party could even end up polling in single digits, which would be frankly unprecedented. At first I thought this was mere expectation management, but this weekend’s polls have made me take this possibility somewhat more seriously: for the European elections Opinium had the Tories at 11%, ComRes had them at 13% and YouGov at 10%.
I would usually expect the Conservatives to perform slightly better in the East Midlands than across the country as a whole (in 2014, they registered 23% nationwide but 26% here), but there is some reason to be cautious about that this time round. For one thing, there was the utter disaster of Conservative-run Northamptonshire County Council, declared insolvent in 2018. This scandal may get little traction outside Northamptonshire itself, but one of its consequences was that Northamptonshire had to cancel its scheduled 2019 local elections, which means that these European elections will be the first time for voters in the county to show their dissatisfaction at the mismanagement of their council.
With their polling this poor, the Conservatives’ chance of retaining both their MEPs seems almost none-existent. Their current polling numbers should still enable them to hold one seat here, but even this could potentially be vulnerable to a further fall or a Liberal Democrat surge.
As previously mentioned, both of UKIP’s East Midlands MEPs defected to the Brexit Party earlier this year, leaving UKIP with no European representation in the region. The party seems to have been largely written off by mainstream media outlets as a serious electoral force but to me that seems a little premature.
It’s worth remembering that the Brexit Party did not field candidates in this year’s local elections, so we have not yet seen what happens to the UKIP vote when it is in direct competition with the Brexit Party. With that important caveat in mind, however, it is interesting that UKIP’s vote held up surprisingly well in some parts of the East Midlands, including in Derby, where they actually managed to gain two seats from Labour.
UKIP have given themselves the best possible chance of holding on here by choosing a serious candidate to top their list: Alan Graves, leader of the UKIP group on Derby City Council (where he serves, incidentally, alongside his son of the same name). Even so, it’s going to be very tough for UKIP to gain the number of votes it would need to be in with a shot of gaining an MEP here and I’m far from convinced they can succeed in doing it.
The Liberal Democrats are widely agreed to have had the biggest success during the recent local elections. Outside a couple of small pockets of support, however, they have never been particularly strong in the East Midlands. They held the parliamentary seat of Chesterfield between 2001 and 2010 but nowadays the party only seems to have strength there in local rather than national elections. Currently the Liberal Democrats seem to be strongest in Leicestershire, where they control two district councils: Oadby and Wigston, and Hinckley and Bosworth.
It is not impossible for the Liberal Democrats to get an MEP elected here (they last did so in 2009), but since their base in the region is limited their best hope probably lies in galvanising the region’s Remainers to vote tactically. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to persuade large enough numbers of Green voters and Labour Remainers to lend their support. They will probably need 10% or more to be in with a chance of gaining an MEP, and the closer they can get to 15% the more likely it becomes that they can pull it off.
The Green Party
The 2014 European elections were surprisingly strong for the Green Party. In the East Midlands they managed to leapfrog past the Liberal Democrats into fourth place, albeit far behind the top three parties. I’m unconvinced they will be able to repeat that feat this time. A good result for the Green Party probably involves them getting a solid vote share out of Nottingham and Leicester, thereby laying the foundation for further gains there in future local and general elections.
Change UK is the ones of the biggest unknowns when it comes to this year’s European elections. On the one hand, the Liberal Democrats (whose voters Change UK have been deliberately targeting) have never really managed to get a solid foothold in the East Midlands. But on the other hand, one of the stated aims of Change UK is to reach voters that the Liberal Democrats have not historically been able to reach – an aim that as of yet has not been tested electorally.
For what it’s worth they are fielding a good candidate at the top of their list here in Kate Godfrey, Labour’s 2015 parliamentary political candidate for Stafford (not in the East Midlands, incidentally!) She also has some experience working for the United Nations and for the 2016 Remain campaign, so it’s at least possible that she still has some residual goodwill from Labour party members and/or fellow Remain campaigners.
Do Change UK have a chance of getting a member elected here? Almost certainly not. Will they managed to avoid embarrassment? Your guess is as good as mine. For what it’s worth I suspect Change UK are more likely to underperform than overperform, but as we have no concrete evidence to go off this is mainly down to pure gut feel.
What will these European elections be able to tell us about the state of the parties going forward?
Labour will be paying particular attention to the vote in marginal seats, with an emphasis on the effect the Brexit Party has on the vote of the two main parties. If the Brexit Party proves capable of siphoning off enough votes from the Conservatives this could leave Labour with a chance of winning Brexit-y marginals like Sherwood, Mansfield, North East Derbyshire and Amber Valley without even having to improve on their 2017 vote share.
The Brexit Party might also have hopes of winning a couple of these marginal seats, although they will also have their eye on some bigger targets, including some supposedly safe seats in the Tory shires. In all the time I’ve lived in Lincolnshire, I’ve only ever been canvassed once. That was back in 2015 when the local Conservatives were making the rounds before the general election, clearly worried about a potential UKIP surge across rural parts of the county. That time the surge was real, but it wasn’t quite enough to topple any Conservative MPs. This time round, the Brexit Party is polling ahead of where UKIP was in 2015 and the Conservatives are polling massively behind their own 2015 result, so if this continues the safe Tory shires might be no more.
Finally, there is the matter of Change UK. Two of their bigger names currently represent constituencies in the East Midlands: Anna Soubry in Broxtowe and Chris Leslie in Nottingham East. Honestly, it is difficult to see either being of them able to hold their seat in the next general election. Nottingham East is one of the safest Labour seats in the country, so even a strong Change UK performance probably wouldn’t be enough to hold it. Broxtowe, however, is a marginal seat, so Soubry may have a slightly better chance if the various other parties split the vote several ways. The European elections will be our first opportunity to see if Change UK can even hope to hold a seat like Broxtowe, or if they will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history.