Tactical Voting in the UK in the EU Elections 2019 – Why is it so difficult?

I was asked about tactical voting in the EU elections on Facebook and I put this quick thing together in comments on a post there. I figure it’s probably important enough to re-post it in a more coherent format.

To understand tactical voting in the EU elections, you need to understand how they work and why the system they use (at least in most of the UK) influences how you should think about where to put your tactical vote. This is even more pertinent in 2019 with the EU elections being cast as a pseudo-second EU referendum.

To illustrate the system I’ve taken numbers from the 2014 EU elections in Scotland as they illustrate both the system and how a few tactical votes would make a difference. The thoughts on tactical voting make the assumption that you want to vote for a pro-Remain party but are torn between the SNP, Greens and LibDem – this is purely for illustrative purposes. However you want to vote, I hope this helps to show why tactical voting in the EU elections is tricker than in Westminster ones and it helps you out in your region.

How does it work?

There are three things to bear in mind with the EU elections

  • EU elections in the UK use the d’Hondt method which is slightly weird in that it is somewhat biased against the smaller parties – it’s not strictly proportional. Also, you only vote once with an X – no numbers and no transferable votes.
  • Once MEPs are elected they tend to vote along bloc lines within the EU parliament. The regional parties (SNP / Plaid) and the Greens tend to vote together. Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems are all in different blocs. UKIP and presumably the Brexit Party would be together. Quite where ChangeUK would fit in is anyone’s guess. Bearing that in mind, if your preferred vote is unlikely to return an MEP, you may want to consider casting a more useful vote for someone else in the same bloc. Of course you may also be less concerned about your MEP’s policies than about backing Remain/Leave this time around.
  • You’re voting for a small number of MEPs in your region. It’s not a national vote (like the EU referendum) or a constituency vote (like a general election). And the fewer the number of MEPs your region elects, the more likely the system is to be biased towards the bigger parties. The regional breakdown is:
    • East Midlands (five MEPs)
    • 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)

So yeah, d’Hondt. It’s a slightly quirky system in that, as I said, you don’t get to choose 1, 2, 3 like you do in some proportional votes. Instead you choose one party but each party’s vote is proportionally allocated to fill the number of seats available in your region. You also don’t vote for candidates, the MEPs are taken from the party lists as seats are allocated to that party. You can see those lists beforehand and on the ballot paper so if one particular name is important to you then by all means try to get them elected.

The system is easiest to demonstrate with an example so we’ll look at Scotland in the 2014 EU elections. Scotland actually returned 4 “Leave” MEPs and 2 “Remain” (although at the time we were pre-referendum so people were voting along party lines, not Leave/Remain lines except for UKIP and the tiny far-right anti-EU parties). But in getting 4 MEPs the “Leave” parties only got 56% of the vote. D’Hondt is far from exactly proportional.

Here are the results from Scotland in 2014

Looking at the vote breakdown, for the first seat it’s a simple most-votes wins. The SNP have the most votes so they win it. Under d’Hondt, once you win a seat, your vote is divided by the number of seats you’ve won so far +1. Their vote is thus divided by two for the count for Seat 2. The SNP are now down to 195K so Labour gets the second seat with 348K. Now, for Seat 3 both the SNP and Labour votes are divided by two and Seat 3 goes to the Tories with 231K.

Seat 4 doesn’t go to UKIP however. They polled the fourth most votes overall but the modified SNP total of 195K is still more than UKIP’s 140K so the SNP get Seat 4. The SNP vote is now their original total divided by three (they’ve won two seats) so Labour wins Seat 5 (still more than UKIP’s original total). With both the SNP and Labour vote divided by three when working out Seat 6, UKIP finally comes out on top and claims it.

So, in terms of roughly translating vote share into seats, 21%+ gets you two MEPs, 10%-20% gets you one and anything under 10% doesn’t get representation. These numbers vary region to region with the number of seats available but that’s roughly the breakdown in Scotland where there are six MEPs up for election. In regions where fewer MEPs are elected, the percentage of the vote required to get a seat will be higher. As much as 18% may still not be enough to get you an MEP in regions where only three MEPs are returned.

So how do I vote tactically?

Talking tactics, it’s worth noting that in 2014 the LibDem / Green vote got 15% between them but no representation. That’s one example of how a vote-split in the Remain vote can actually wipe you out in EU elections. That’s very possible this time round with the SNP, Plaid, Greens, Lib Dems and ChangeUK all vying for the Remain vote. The same is true for the UKIP / Brexit Party / Tory split on the Leave side. A tactical vote may mean abandoning your party of principle and putting your vote where it is most likely to count (or least likely to split the Leave/Remain vote that you want to back).

If you’re tempted to back a smaller party hoping they might get enough to gain a seat and think the larger parties don’t need your vote because they’re easily going to win seats it’s also worth noting that if the SNP had polled a couple of points higher at around 31% in 2014 they would have taken the sixth seat off UKIP – so even though you may think the SNP will easily win the popular vote and you don’t need to vote for them and you can put your vote elsewhere, a larger share can still make the difference for the final seat. That’s why tactical voting in EU elections is so tricky specially when it’s such a one-dimensional Leave/Remain issue this time around.

In 2019 the Remain vote is likely to get split across several parties (Greens / SNP / Plaid / LibDem / ChangeUK) which risks returning fewer MEPs because of how d’Hondt works and while, for example, the overall public vote percentage might be for Remain, the Leave vote will likely be swept up by only UKIP, the Brexit Party and the Tories – less of a split in the vote (specially if the UKIP and/or Tory vote collapses) – possibly leading to a majority for Leave in the actual MEP numbers – which of course they’ll spin to be a major victory.

But then of course every politician is a master of spin, yes even the ones you like.

I think the bloc stuff I mentioned earlier is important here. If you think, for example, that voting Green may be a wasted vote in Scotland but want to ensure a Remain vote then the SNP is probably the way to go as they’ll vote the in the same bloc whether you return a Green MEP or an SNP one. If you think your vote for a borderline party might make the difference in your region and you’ll get, say, two Tories -and- a Brexit Party MEP then by all means vote for the small party (although remember they may be in different blocs).

The biggest issue in all of the tactical voting of course, is finding any region-only polling to give you any idea how the parties are faring in your area and which ones are around that magic 10-15% mark that would need your support to grab that last seat – or which ones are around 30% and might grab a second or third seat. Most polls are nationwide and rarely give regional data and they’re of little help when trying to determine the situation in your region and thus how to deploy your tactical vote.

Two examples: across the UK the SNP poll a mere 4% (roughly) but they are obviously a hugely significant factor in the Scotland region. In the Eastern region the Brexit Party and UKIP are likely to perform at their best. And whilst UKIP may not poll as highly nationally as they did in 2014, they’re still likely to gain a significant proportion of the vote in several regions. Knowing the regional lay of the land is key but national polling doesn’t tell us this. Unfortunately we can’t even really rely on the 2014 results as regional indicators. There are two new parties (Brexit and ChangeUK) and Brexit itself (as well as the recent council elections) has changed the playing field beyond recognition. It’s possible the Tories will get wiped out but will that vote go to UKIP, the Brexit Party, ChangeUK, the LibDems or even Labour? Who can say?

In short, it’s not easy to vote tactically but I hope it’s at least easier to understand why now.

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