Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Seventh Seat and the BNP in Eastern England

Q: What would it take for the BNP to win a seat in Eastern England?
A: An average of more than 3,200 votes per constituency in the entire region, which is the equivalent of a 90% increase on the vote it secured in its Epping Forest stronghold in 2005. The BNP threat is therefore minimal.

Q: Which party has the best chance of denying the BNP a seat?
A: If UKIP can secure the same vote as in 2004, it will deny the BNP a seat by taking the region's seventh seat in the European Parliament. But, based on current trends, the Liberal Democrats are best placed. They only need an increase of 300 votes per constituency to win a second seat, thereby winning the seventh seat from UKIP. Yet the Greens also have a chance of winning a seat, if they can double their vote.

The European Parliament elections in the UK are being fought on a proportional representation electoral system called the d'Hondt method. In this system, parties put forward a list of candidates and whichever list has the highest number of votes gets the next seat allocated. The process is repeated until all seats have been allocated.

In the 2004 European Parliament election in Eastern England, the Conservatives won three seats (down one), the UK Independence Party came second with two seats (up one) and Labour and the Liberal Democrats secured one seat each (Labour lost a seat). In 2009, the region will again vote for seven seats in the European Parliament.
European Election 2004: East of England
List Elected Votes % ±%

Conservative Geoffrey van Orden
Robert Sturdy
Christopher Beazley
465,526 (155,175.67) 30.8 −11.9

UK Independence Jeffrey Titford
Tom Wise
296,160 (148,080) 19.6 +10.7

Labour Richard Howitt 244,929 16.2 −8.9

Liberal Democrat Andrew Duff 211,378 14.0 +2.1

Martin Bell
No 93,028 6.2 N/A

Green None 84,068 5.6 −0.6

British National None 65,557 4.3 +3.4

English Democrats None 26,807 1.8 N/A

Respect None 13,904 0.9 N/A

Jim Naisbitt
No 5,137 0.3 N/A

ProLife Alliance None 3,730 0.3 N/A
Turnout 1,510,224 36.5 +11.8

In order to win the final, seventh seat, in Eastern England a party will have to win at least 9% of the vote - or 150,000 votes based on the 2004 turnout - if not more. To secure a second seat, a party will have to get around 20%. The figures are only approximate due to the nature in which the seats are distributed. It is conceivable that a party could win a seat with just 8% of the vote.

UKIP narrowly won the seventh seat in 2004, denying Labour its second seat in the region. But there are doubts it can repeat this performance in 2009. The party has not been immune from accusations of corruption, with Tom Wise - who was elected as a UKIP MEP for Eastern England but later expelled from the party over allegations concerning his expenses claims - recently charged with false accounting and money laundering. UKIP will be doing very well if it repeats its 2004 performance, but even based on current opinion polls it is unlikely to repeat the 19.6% vote it previously achieved in the region. This throws open the door to other parties.

Given that the BNP secured just 4.3% of the vote in Eastern England in 2004, it faces an uphill battle to win the seventh seat from UKIP. Based on the 2004 turnout, the BNP would have to win an extra 1,800-2,000 votes per constituency in Eastern England in order to win one seat and a 130% increase in its vote overall - in 2004, it increased its vote four-fold, but from a very low base. In contrast, the Greens would have to win another 1,300-1,500 votes per constituency. The Liberal Democrats would need just 200-300 votes per constituency to win the final distributed seat, increasing their number of MEPs in the region to two.

For the Conservatives to increase their number of seats to four, they will need an extra 150,000 votes - or 3,100-3,300 votes per constituency - and bring their level of support to at least 40%. It would appear that they have difficult task, particularly as current opinion polls for the EP elections put them on around 30%. However, all it would take is a return to the vote they achieved in 1999 to win the seventh seat, with the potential for defections from UKIP.

The scenario depends on turnout and voting trends. If the turnout is lower than the 36.5% achieved in 2004, it will be easier for minor parties to win the seventh seat. A drop in turnout to 30% would still mean the BNP needs to double its number of votes over 2004, while the Liberal Democrats would only need to return the same number of votes to win a second seat and the Conservatives would need a modest upturn to win the region's seventh seat.

Conversely, a higher turnout could be achieved if previous non-voters rally behind a minor party with a popular mandate. This seemed to be the case in 2004, when a higher turnout was principally due to previous non-voters casting their vote for UKIP. The BNP will be hoping to make the same kind of breakthrough in 2009. In Epping Forest, the BNP has won seats by encouraging a previously apathetic portion of the electorate to come out and vote for them, thereby raising turnout. However, this appears to be a fairly unique situation, as in many other parts of the country the BNP has won seats as a result of very low turnouts.

Few are under the illusion that the Labour vote will hold up, amid the expenses fiasco and the economic recession. But it would require the Labour vote to fall by 100,000 across the region - or 2,000-2,500 votes per constituency if the turnout remains the same - for the party to lose its seat. If 70% of these votes went to the BNP, the extremists would secure the seat, although it is certain they will pick up votes from across the political spectrum - particularly former UKIP and Conservative supporters - as well as previously apathetic non-voters.

Polling trends show that Labour voters are, on the whole, more likely to vote Liberal Democrat and Green rather than BNP. The Greens have tended to attract support from Labour voters, although they claim that most of their surge in support has come from those who previously voted for the Liberal Democrats. A switch from Liberal Democrat to Greens makes the outcome much harder to predict, although there is also a likelihood of previously Conservative and Labour voters switching to the Liberal Democrats that could offset any drift in the Greens' favour. The key risk factor for the Liberal Democrats is their enthusiasm for the European Union, which goes against the grain of generally Eurosceptic public opinion.

Muddying the waters further is the issue of where high profile Independent candidate Martin Bell's votes will go in 2009. Bell stood against Conservative MPs in the past, famously winning against Neil Hamilton in 1997 and coming second behind Eric Pickles in 2001. Although he has won support across a broad spectrum of voters, the bulk of his support has come from the centre and the left. The main party to benefit from Bell's decision not to contest this years elections appears to be the Liberal Democrats, although the Conservatives could also benefit. Bell himself has thrown his support behind the Greens and in the unlikely scenario that four out of five of his supporters follow him, the party will win the seventh seat.

Other things being equal, the best way to ensure that the BNP has no hope of winning a seat in Eastern England is to vote Liberal Democrat, which could pick up a second seat. While there is a lot of uncertainty over the direction of voting patterns, the threat from the BNP is so remote that voters should feel comfortable voting with their consciences rather than tactically to keep the extremists out.

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