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The Euros – the frustration of voting and simplicity of counting

The Euros – the frustration of voting and simplicity of counting

🕔21.May 2014

You have to hand it to Benjamin Mulvihill. He’s got cojones – a coarse compliment, though hopefully acceptable in the context of a blog on the Euro elections. Cojones, but, as they also say in Spain, mala suerte – bad luck. I refer to his opening piece on the Euro elections on May 1, pretty well at the start of the campaign proper.

With three weeks to elections day, almost anything might have happened, even without Nigel Farage. Yet Benjamin’s cojones emboldened him. “Chamberlain Files predicts”, he pronounced, “we will see three UKIP MEPs returned, two Labour, one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat.”

It was his mala suerte, though, that the recently published ComRes/ITV News opinion poll on which he based this prediction recorded for both UKIP and the Lib Dems levels of support that were the highest they would reach throughout the whole campaign.

In detail, the ComRes poll headline figures were: UKIP 38%, Labour 27%, Conservatives 18%, Lib Dems 8%, and Greens 4%.

About 16 national polls have appeared since that one, all by reputable companies, all asking specifically about voting intentions in the Euro elections – and not one has put UKIP higher than 36% or the Lib Dems higher than 10%.

Their respective averages are 30% and 8%, which, were he making it today, would no doubt refine Benjamin’s bold, corporate prediction.

The purpose of this blog, therefore, is to round off the campaign, not with a smug counter-prediction, but with a look at how the count will work here in the West Midlands and at the different party distributions of MEPs our votes could produce in the light of more recent polls.

First, though, a couple of observations about the voting, as opposed to the counting, system. All countries must elect their MEPs by some form of proportional representation. Ireland and Northern Ireland choose the Single Transferable Vote, as used in their domestic elections, but most use party lists.

The title itself suggests a pretty depersonalised system of voting for parties, rather than candidates. But only a few countries, like Great Britain, make it almost voter-insulting by using closed lists.

In the 7-member West Midlands constituency, for example, we are presented with a cumbersome ballot paper containing 11 lists and 71 candidates’ names, but permitted to contribute just one X for one political party. Try voting for, or crossing out, a candidate and you risk having your vote invalidated.

It’s insulting for over 60 of the candidates too, because, as Benjamin’s more recent candidate profiles have suggested, only the top two or three of the leading parties’ lists stand a serious chance of getting anywhere near Strasbourg. But that’s their problem: their positioning is determined by their parties.

Closed lists discourage both voter participation and candidate campaigning, and would be questionable even if, like Austria, around one in six of us were party members. But we have almost the lowest party membership rate in the whole EU, with at most 1% of us being members, and closed lists amount to an affront.

We’re not unique, but the majority of countries use either semi-open lists, where voters can change candidates’ positions on their chosen party list, or completely open lists, where they can vote for candidates in different lists.

Our Government could also have switched to open lists, and there is perhaps some consolation for electoral reformers in Cameron’s refusal having cost his party its best chance of hurting UKIP.

Eurosceptic Conservative – or indeed Labour – voters, instead of being able to vote for their own party’s openly Eurosceptic candidates, are left only with the UKIP option.

If voters are the chief victims of closed lists, chief beneficiaries, apart from UKIP, are obviously the vote counters. They’ve possibly heard that, like most countries, we allocate seats through the d’Hondt method, devised by an obscure Belgian mathematician, and imagine that it’s fiendishly complicated.

Honestly, it’s not – unless you’re bewildered by the idea of allocating seats in rounds. Round 1- the party with the most votes (Party A) wins a seat for its top-listed candidate. Round 2 – that winning party’s vote is divided by 2, and the next seat goes to whichever party, including Party A, now has the highest total.

The process is repeated, with the original vote of the winning party in each round being divided by 1 + their running total of MEPs, until all seats are taken. That’s it – simples?

And, keeping exactly the same votes, by changing this mini-formula – to, say, 1 + double the running total of MEPs – you can manipulate the result, in this example in favour of smaller parties.

That’s one thing the accompanying table illustrates, in the bottom line, which recounts YouGov’s latest poll figures, but dividing by 3, then 5, rather than 2, then 3 – and gives UKIP’s third seat to the Lib Dems.


The main message, though, is that here in the West Midlands, as elsewhere, although some candidates – probably the top two listed by Labour and UKIP and the top Conservative – can feel almost gloatingly confident, there is, as the sports pundits say, still plenty to play for.

Even small differences in vote totals, as recorded in recent opinion polls, can change the allocation of at least our sixth and seventh seats.

The first four rows of the table show the headline figures from four campaign polls – three from the past week plus what I think of as the Mulvihill poll. They were all conducted professionally and rigorously, but the different pollsters use different methodologies.

Neither individually nor collectively, therefore, should they be considered predictive. Their sole purpose here is illustrative.

Since May 1, UKIP hasn’t topped 35% and its lead over Labour and the Conservatives has been generally falling. Nor have the Lib Dems exceeded 10%, and the Greens have touched 10% only in the past week and only in some polls.

The West Midlands constituency is too small for national polls to adjust for, but in 2009 UKIP in particular polled more strongly here than nationally, and more of its supporters tell pollsters that they’re absolutely certain to vote than do those of the major parties, especially Labour.

But that’s when they’re sitting comfortably at home. Whether, without having the other parties’ grassroots organisations to round them up, their keenness will actually get them to the polling stations is just one of Thursday’s many intriguing unknowns.

Ah Chris – to you I say mañana, mañana. Tomorrow will reveal all. I am fully aware of the dangers of predictions, and I have to admit, I may have to revise my predictions – but not to your’s.

 UKIP have strength and form in the region, even with Farage’s recent car crashes, and I believe they will gain over 30% of the vote the needed to give them 3 MEPs. It is the Lib Dems who I fear will have to give up a slot to the Conservatives – they haven’t performed above 10% in any poll, while the Conservatives have manage to bolster their polling. 

But, as we both know, any pollster will confess to at least a few percentage points of error, so it’s all to play for.


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