Will European election pollsters prove to be right on the night?

Deborah Mattinson


We voted on Thursday but must wait until 10pm on Sunday night to find out what happened in the EU elections. Here’s a quick guide to who might win or lose.

Leave v Remain?
For once, this European election was actually about Europe, so let’s start there. The initial focus will be on whether (as expected) Nigel Farage’s Brexit party will be the overall winner, handing a huge symbolic victory to the Leavers, but to read this election like a second referendum will need a little more work. The straightforward calculation will be to add up both the Leave parties, Brexit and Ukip, and compare that with the overtly Remain parties – the Lib Dems, Greens, Change UK, SNP and Plaid Cymru.

A further sophistication involves allocating a proportion of the Labour and Tory votes to each side. This is tricky as there is little agreement among pollsters as to what this proportion should be. The Brexit Diaries project of BritainThinks suggests Tory voters on 80% Leave and 20% Remain, and Labour 60-40 in favour of Remain.

Who will be the biggest loser?
The top prize for this will almost certainly go to Ukip, winner in 2014 at 27% and now, after the arrival of the Brexit party in April, down to a desultory 2%. Change UK is a contender too. A lacklustre campaign means they will be relieved to have around 5% of the vote.

We’ll be much more interested in the fate of the two main parties who, until recently, had been enjoying dominance of the political landscape not seen for decades, with a combined vote share in 2017 of 80%.

Now 84% of voters tell us that they are “very unimpressed with both parties on Brexit”.

The question for the Tories is whether it will be a bad night or a catastrophic one. In 2014 they came third with 24% but are now hovering around the early teens in most polls (although YouGov last Wednesday put the party in fifth with a humiliating 7%). By that reckoning just reaching double figures would be an OK night.

Labour were in second place last time with what now looks like a mighty 25%. Our polling at BritainThinks suggests that 70% believe Jeremy Corbyn has been driven by party politics rather than national interest on Brexit. Focus groups echo this disappointment. Anything over 20% – which is where most pollsters still place Labour – would be a respectable result, especially if Labour can achieve second place, but last Wednesday’s YouGov poll also had Labour on a miserable 13%, in third place, 6% behind the Lib Dems, and just 1% ahead of the Greens.

Who will be the biggest winner?
The Brexit party has scored more than 30% in nine out of the last 10 published polls, reaching a high of 38% in the most recent Opinium survey. Expectations are now so high that anything less than early 30s and first place will disappoint. They already have Theresa May’s head as a trophy.

Second place is the goal now for the Lib Dems, hoping to be rewarded for their forthright “Bollocks to Brexit” campaign, winning votes from disaffected Labour Remainers. Their ascent from a single-figure vote share in April to the late teens last week will be a triumph if it translates into actual votes. In 2014 they achieved just under 7%, coming fifth behind the Greens on 8%. The Greens’ ability to exceed that 2014 score looks less certain. In about 20 polls this month only five have them in double figures; still, they hope they can gain from the greater focus on climate change in recent weeks.

Is the voter the biggest loser of all?
The polls have told us a mixed story, with the Labour vote-share proving most variable, ranging from mid-20s to early teens in the last few days, reflecting the challenge of making predictions against such a febrile and changeable backdrop.

Turnout will also be interesting. Usually in the mid-30s for European elections – in 2014 it was 34.2% – our Brexit Diaries work suggests a higher than usual turnout, given that almost two-thirds of voters are very motivated by Brexit – around half by leaving and half by remaining.

We’ll know on Sunday night which pollsters can claim to be the winners. Whatever the result, it seems likely that the biggest losers will be the voters. There will be little respite for the 83% of us who are fed up with seeing Brexit on our TVs every night – or for the 64% who fear Brexit is damaging their mental health.

Deborah Mattinson is founder of the research and strategy consultancy, BritainThinks