Disclaimer: While this blog concentrates on Scotland the general themes follow for all UK regions in this election. Naturally, the likely threshold for getting elected is lower for larger regions with more MEPs (London, SE England, East England, West Midlands & North West England) the same for regions with the same number of MEPs (Yorkshire & Humber, SW England) and higher for regions with fewer MEPs (East Midlands, North East England, Wales & Northern Ireland.)
As we enter the final straight for the somewhat unexpected EU elections of 23rd May, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding how the elections work and how best to use your vote, so I’m going to try and clear that up.
Scotland elects 6 MEPs via the D’Hondt Method of proportional representation. This means that everyone gets one vote which they can cast for any one of seven party lists (Brexit Party, Change UK, Conservatives, Greens, Labour, Liberal Democrats & SNP) or two independent candidates (Ken Parke & Gordon Edgar.)
This method takes the number of votes a party/independent receives and divides them by the number of MEPS they have elected + 1. The candidate with the highest ratio is elected and the calculation starts again, until all six representatives are selected.
Notionally having 6 MEPs means it takes 16.67% to get elected, but things are never as neat as that. While 16.67% (or a multiple thereof) will guarantee an MEP, as there are numerous parties, who will receive odd %s of votes, both above and below that magic number, the lowest bar for getting elected is probably around 9-10%. For example, UKIP elected David Coburn on 10.5% of the vote in 2014 and the Lib Dems elected George Lyon on 11.5% in 2009.
There is a lot of talk about tactical voting along the lines of electing the largest number of pro/anti EU or pro/anti Scottish independence MEPs but unlike the First Past the Post system used for UK General Elections this system is largely proof against such gaming.
In those elections, you need to get around 30% of the vote in a given area to elect a constituency MP and as such, it’s tempting to vote for the ‘least bad’ big party rather than a smaller party that more closely aligns with your views.
However, in the Scottish EU election region, the target is around 10% (possibly less if the vote is especially fractured) and given the low turnout for EU elections* a relatively small number of votes can cause big swings and make the difference between electing an MEP (or more) and not.
* 33.5% in the 2014 European Election, compared to 46.9% for the 2017 Local Elections and or 66.4% for the 2017 General Election.
In the 2014 EU election another 33,600 votes for the Scottish Greens or 35’000 votes for the SNP would have seen them take the sixth MEP over UKIP. While that’s a considerable number, roughly the population of Dumfries or Falkirk, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the 2.6 million who didn’t even vote.
Given the significant difference in policy on economics, social issues, Scottish independence and the EU in general between those parties, little could illustrate the difference that choosing to vote one way or another can make.
|EU Election 2014||Vote %||MEPs||Order Elected|
As we’ve covered, this system is difficult to game and the biggest swings come amongst the parties who are close to the bottom of the pile. It’s also hard to predict for two big reasons.
Firstly, the way D’Hondt works, it makes it harder for bigger parties to pick up more seats – needing a bump of votes of 10-16% to go from one MEP to 2 MEPs and so on and it depends how fractured the vote amongst the other parties is.
A party winning 36% of the vote can rightly expect 2 MSPs, but when it comes to getting a third, their ratio is 36/(2+1) = 12, so they would lose out to a party on 13% of the vote – which is below the notional ratio to get an MEP.
In extreme cases, a party winning 66% of the vote can get either four MSPs if one other party takes the remaining 33% or all six MSPs if the remainder of the vote is split evenly between many parties*. At the other extreme, if six parties split most of the vote relatively evenly between 10-19% each then they would each win one MSP each – a situation which is not unusual in places like the Netherlands.
* This is exactly what the result would have been if Did Not Vote had run a list in 2014 as 66.5% of the population didn’t vote.
Secondly, this EU election is more heated than usual on account of the enduring soap opera that is Brexit AND there are two new parties likely to take significant vote %, either winning seats or reducing the overhang for other parties in the shape of the Brexit party and Change UK.
Both of those parties will likely take votes away from traditional powerhouses such as the Conservative & Labour parties and this is reflected in some very competitive polling.
Unhelpfully at the time of writing, I could only find 2 polls which seem to have gathered significant Scottish data for the EU elections (fieldwork on 24 & 26th April by Panelbase & YouGov respectively) and their aggregate results would lead to a result somewhat like this.
|2019 Polling||Vote %||MEPs||Order Elected|
Now, I’m a bit dubious of this polling as I think it overvalues both the Brexit Party, Change UK and UKIP and undervalues the Scottish Greens and Conservatives a bit. Of course, the caveat that two online polls with a total sample of 2047, including two brand new parties, held a month out from the vote is not a great basis for analysis has to apply.
That said, if you take a 3% or greater margin of error, the sheer instability surrounding this election and the significant swings seen in Scottish elections over the last decade into account it’s pretty clear that the fifth & sixth MSP spot could be quite tightly contested and return a fourth SNP, second Labour, Conservative, Brexit Party, Scottish Green or Liberal Democrat MEP.
So what’s the bottom line?
1. Voting matters.
Voting always matters, but in this election your vote can really make a difference in electing a representative of your chosen party. Given the usually-low turnout for the EU elections and the likelihood that the last MEP spot could be decided by as little as half a percent or so (which is only a few thousand votes) it is absolutely worth wandering down to your polling station and putting an X in a box.
Given how important the EU is to the questions of Brexit and Scottish Independence as well as combating climate change and all those little laws like working time regulations, minimum wages and investment, this is far from a meaningless election – even if the elected MEPs only end up sitting for a few months.
2. You can vote with your heart.
As I’ve said, while I’d be mighty surprised if the SNP didn’t win 2-3 MEPs at least and Labour and the Tories didn’t get at least one each, the last two slots are wide open with six parties in with a realistic chance of electing (more) MEPs when the maths tighten around the fifth and sixth slots.
So do some research and go with your heart. Pick the manifesto that most speaks to you and put your X in their box safe in the knowledge that you’ve done a democracy. Anyone who tells you to vote tactically based on whatever reasoning is trying to sell you something rather than convince with policies & principles.
Chris Napier is a husband, father, activist & writer living in Glasgow. You can support his political and creative writing through Patreon or a one-off donation on Ko-fi.
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