Today’s European elections are a very big deal indeed. Because we were supposed to leave the EU on March 29, it’s being predicted that disgruntled Leave voters will use their ballot papers to send a message to the House of Commons by supporting (ugh) Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
However, the elections are also a chance for frustrated Remain voters to make it clear once and for all that we want a second Referendum. But because three parties (the Liberal Democrats, Green and Change UK) all support a so-called “people’s vote”, it’s difficult to know how to use our votes to the greatest possible advantage. With this in mind, here’s an explainer on how whole the whole shebang works.
It’s not really like a General Election at all.
At a General Election, 650 constituencies across the UK send 650 MPs to the House of Commons – one MP per constituency, easy. But on Thursday, just 12 constituencies will send 73 MEPs to Brussels. Depending on their population, some of these constituencies elect a lot more MEPs than others. Here’s how the seats are divvied up.
- East Midlands (five MEP seats)
- East of England (seven)
- London (eight)
- North East (three)
- North West (eight)
- Northern Ireland (three)
- Scotland (six)
- South East (10)
- South West (six)
- Wales (four)
- West Midlands (seven)
- Yorkshire and the Humber (six)
You vote for a party, not a candidate.
On the ballot paper each party submits a list of candidates in their order of preference, which we can’t change. So if Labour wins two seats in Wales, for example, its top two candidates will be the ones going to Brussels.
Within each constituency, the seats are distributed using a system of using proportional representation.
Specifically, using the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, which dates back to the 19th century and is generally well regarded. Under this system, the party with the most votes wins the first “round” of voting and therefore the first seat, but has its tally halved in the next “round”, so that in most cases the second most popular party will win the second seat. The party which wins the second seat is then penalised in the same way in the third round, and so on, and so on, until all seats in the constituency are accounted for. It’s not quite as complicated as it probably sounds, and the BBC has a very helpful step-by-step guide as to how it can play out.
This system makes tactical voting kind of tricky.
And that’s partly because, under the D’Hondt system, more votes doesn’t necessarily mean more seats. Look at the 2014 European election results in South East England: Labour (with 14.5% of votes), the Green Party (9%) and the Liberal Democrats (8%) each won a single seat in this constituency, despite Labour proving much more popular with voters.
Meanwhile, an LSE blog predicts that this time around, 15% of total votes in North East England will be enough to win a party a single seat there. By contrast, it predicts that just 8% of total votes will be needed to win a single seat in South East England. The blog concludes: “Where the effective threshold is well below 10% (London, South England England, North West England), the best outcome for pro-Remain parties would actually be for the vote to be as evenly split between them as possible.”
There are two primary sites advising Remainers on how to vote in a way that will return as many pro-Remain party MEPs as possible: Remainvoter.com and Gina Martin’s Remainunited.org. However, the fact that these two sites don’t always agree with each other hardly inspires confidence. The latter has been particularly criticised for advising Remainers in almost every constituency to vote Lib Dem.
And neither site offers any advice on whether voting Labour, even with their somewhat wishy-washy Brexit policy, could be the best way to halt the Brexit Party.
Oh, and things are a little different if you’re voting in Northern Ireland.
In the province, three MEPs are elected using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. Basically, you vote for your top three parties in order of preference, and once a party has enough votes to win the first seat, voters’ second and third choice parties are taken into consideration as well. Unsurprisingly, this invariably leads to three different parties winning one seat apiece.