The 2019 European elections, which followed on from local elections just weeks before, became a strong focus of “remain” frustration. While leavers had a single clear banner to vote for in the form of the Brexit Party, remainers found their vote likely to be split across many parties.
Across the UK the Lib Dems, Greens, ChangeUK and even Labour campaigned to win remain voters. In Scotland and Wales, the SNP and Plaid Cymru represented additional “remain” options too.
That is a lot of parties to split remain votes, making a remain pact appear to be a natural opportunity. But it is also a very diverse set of parties in many other regards. While all of them might be considered “left” on the political spectrum (or at least left compared to the present Westminster status quo), their strongest motivations are clearly not aligned.
With pacts between some of these parties there might have been more “remain” MEPs elected, but the lack of a pact was arguably more useful for sending a remain message.
While they were effectively united on “remain”, they were and are opposed on other things. The Lib Dems were recently part of a coalition government that pushed marketisation of public services. It also opposes independence movements. The Green Party is more committed to public ownership and is highly motivated by prioritisation of the environment over other things. The SNP and Plaid Cymru are first and foremost independence movements for their respective nations, and ChangeUK was still struggling to establish what change it wanted other than to a country not dominated by the Conservatives and Labour.
With all that in mind, the case for a pact at the European Elections had to be overwhelming. And it wasn’t.
A Message to Send
In 2019 – where “remain” dominated the campaigns of the parties in question – the motivation went beyond securing MEPs. This was a campaign to make staying in the EU more likely, or at least staying close to the EU more likely. The case for that could be as well made by simple vote counts as it could by easily overlooked details like the number of MEPs won.
This played out – the unambiguous Brexit Party (plus UKIP) was “out-scored” by the diverse array of unambiguous “remain” parties across the UK: 34.9% to 40.4%.
With pacts between some of these parties there might have been more “remain” MEPs elected, but the lack of a pact was arguably more useful for sending a remain message to the public, the press, and in particular to one other party.
There is little value in staying pure in your campaign if it leaves you unable to achieve anything at all on behalf of your cause.
That other party was Labour, which ran a heavilly pro-eu campaign. Candidates repeatedly made the case for remain despite the party itself remaining committed to supporting brexit first. Labour also made its traditional “only we can beat x” argument – this time about the Brexit Party rather than the Tories.
Had Labour lost to a pact between other parties, it would quite rightly and reasonably have accepted a unique defeat to an anomalous opponent. However, it lost in the end to a real party in normal electoral conditions (the Lib Dems) by over a million votes. It defeated another (the Green Party) by fewer than half a million votes, and it even lost in Wales to Plaid Cymru.
If the hope of remain parties was to remain – that kind of motivational threat to Labour could not have been beaten by any electoral pact. Indeed, Welsh Labour has already responded, making remain it’s assembly government policy.
So Pacts Are Dead Then? No.
Electoral pacts make sense where there is a significant electoral advantage to be gained. In a proportional representation election, that is rare. Unlike Westminster where two parties gaining 15% of the vote will get only handfuls of the 650 MPs, the European elections see such parties get a relatively fair share of MEPs.
What matters now is that Westminster motivation persists.
It is hard to see the value of a any electoral pact for the SNP in Scotland.
At the next General Election – which could happen at any time – small parties will again be rewarded with a severe under-representation in Parliament. A pact could change that, offering enough electoral advantage to outweigh party differences.
After all, there is little value in staying pure in your campaign if it leaves you unable to achieve anything on behalf of your cause for another five years of government. So compromise can achieve enough to make it worth doing, sometimes.
But let’s not imagine some sort of grand “Remain” alliance. That is not realistic.
The SNP and Plaid Cymru have very different status in their respective countries.
The SNP is the natural party of Scottish Government now, as evidenced by its ongoing large lead in voting intentions even after eight years in power. It is also now Scotland’s most natural choice for the “Get The Tories Out” votes when it comes to Westminster Elections – it won well over half of Scottish Westminster seats in both 2015 and 2017.
In effect, it is hard to see the value of a any electoral pact for the SNP in Scotland. Even up against a single-banner Brexit Party, it cruised to victory as the main “remain” party – with 37.7% of the vote (the Brexit Party came second with just 14.8%)
Without a significant number of MPs, Greens will gain no seats on select committees, no say in government, and little opportunity to propose legislation.
In Wales, Plaid Cymru are more of an insurgent party – coming third in Assembly election constituency votes in 2016 (it got 20.5% of the vote), and taking 12 seats to Labour’s 29 in Wales’ proportional representation Assembly.
Plaid’s strong “remain” campaign did earn the party second place in the European Election with 19.6% of the votes (this time beaten by the Brexit Party). So with Lib Dems also taking 13.6% on a strongly remain campaign, and with only four Plaid Cymru MPs elected in the 2017 General Election, there may be value for Plaid Cymru to agree a pact even while the SNP stands aloof.
While ChangeUK is changing again, the Green Party and Lib Dems are the natural focus for an electoral pact. They might find value with Plaid Cymru in Wales, but ultimately if the Greens and Lib Dems don’t co-operate across England, talk of a pact is largely meaningless.
For the Green Party, the motivation for a pact at a Westminster election seems self-evident. The party cares first and foremost for environmental change. It believes that other parties like the Lib Dems pay lip service (at best) to the environment, and that over the course of hundreds of policy decisions every Parliament, the environment is simply not prioritised.
If remain parties made electoral reform a key platform of a temporary pact, they could realign UK politics for the long term.
That is not something it can change from the sidelines. Without a significant number of MPs, it will gain no seats on select committees, no say in government, and little opportunity to propose legislation. For context, The Green Party of England and Wales got just one seat at the 2017 General Election, despite getting over half a million votes.
For the Lib Dems a similar prize is apparent. While it has different policy priorities, it got nearly two and a half million votes in 2017 but only twelve MPs. That leaves it out in the cold on almost everything too.
Making Pacts Irrelevant
The big prize for both parties, however, is probably not remain.
While remain would benefit from a more proportional return for two heavily remain parties – or even three if Plaid Cymru are included – the parties themselves would have another benefit to weigh up – the problem that makes an electoral pacts seem useful.
Electoral pacts appear necessary or appealing in General Elections because of an electoral system that under-represents new or small parties. First Past The Post has not done much for stable one-party government of late, but it generally over-represents major parties at the expense of all others. That in turn puts voters off from voting for smaller parties in case it is a “wasted” vote (something the campaigns of Labour and Conservatives often emphasise).
If the remain parties agreed a pact, the European Election results suggest they could effectively compete as a major party. As seen with the SNP in Scotland, the tipping point to “major” party brings with it even more votes than other-wise available – perhaps because of the loss of a “wasted vote” fear. So a pact might increase their votes and increase the number of MPs their votes are rewarded with. A double boost.
If the same remain parties made electoral reform a key platform of the pact, they would effectively be agreeing to make the pact a temporary “evil” to achieve two aims – stopping brexit in the short term, and realigning UK politics for the long term.
For all the parties in question – except the SNP who are now the over-represented “major” party for Scottish Westminster seats – that would help them serve their diverse priorities well beyond the next election.
And the 2019 European Election result suggest the benefits are achievable thanks to remain-motivated voters.