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Who’ll finish fourth?

February 22nd, 2014

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David Herdson on the battle for the minor European election placings

Fourth is, according to Olympic pundits, the cruellest finishing position.  I don’t buy it.  Who’d rather finish fifth or sixth than fourth, or, looking at it the other way, who enters a competition to finish third?  Higher is better, first is best and last is worst.

Understandably, most of the coverage of the European elections has focussed on the front of the field: who’ll take first place, where Labour and UKIP are tied at 6/5 each with Paddy Power to win most seats, and where Labour edges UKIP by 11/10 (Hills) to 11/8 (Ladbrokes) to win most seats.  Both markets offer easy arbs if you believe the Conservatives stand next to no chance of winning, as I do.  These aren’t elections governing parties win in the UK: the Tories will be third.

With most of this year’s concurrent local elections taking place in urban councils, the difference in turnout might mean there’s slightly more value in the ‘votes won’ arb, and is, presumably, the reason the difference exists in the outright prices.

There is, however, another contest that might not be of huge significance to the European election outcome but could be of consequence for domestic politics heading into the summer and beyond: who will finish fourth?

Fourth place is a position the Lib Dems have finished in after both elections this century, as well as back in 1989.  On current polling, it’s also the best that they could hope for this year, whether or not a Farage-Clegg debate takes place, or, for that matter, a more widely-based leaders’ debate.

For virtually all the reasons that European elections are a perfect storm for UKIP, they’re the precise opposite for the Lib Dems: they’re unable to target resources given the huge constituencies, there are many more protest parties available to voters, tactical voting considerations are largely irrelevant, people don’t much care about the institution they’re electing representatives to so are more prepared to protest, and the Lib Dems’ European policy is not particularly popular, either nationally or in some areas of their strength.

To put some figures on that, in 2009, the Lib Dems won 13.7% of the vote; in the local elections held on the same day, their equivalent national share was 28% – more  than double.  Considering that the Lib Dems’ vote share has been hit hardest in those same urban areas that have local elections (as evidenced by their vote collapsing in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election), the question has to be asked whether the Lib Dems can even hold on to fourth place.

If they can’t, the most likely beneficiary is the Green Party, which won more than 8% in 2009.  If they can repeat that this year, they stand a good chance of finishing ahead of the Yellows.  Working against that is that the Greens’ own profile hasn’t been quite as high in recent years despite Caroline Lucas being elected to parliament.  On the other hand, the Greens are one of the parties that Lib Dem defectors turn to, and such voters reduce the gap at twice the rate as defectors to other parties.

If we’re measuring by seats, rather than votes, the SNP also comes into the equation.  Alex Salmond’s party should see at least two MEPs elected and they could win a third if the numbers fall right, north of the border.  On the other hand, the Lib Dems’ nationally dispersed vote will count against them if their vote share falls into single figures.  All seats outside the four southern constituencies have to be in extreme danger and even those within them are far from safe, particularly if the Greens can match or improve on their 2009 results and with UKIP being strong in the South West and East Anglia.

Bad election results always cause soul-searching among activists, supporters and elected representatives.  It was immediately after the 2009 elections that Brown was most vulnerable to being toppled.  A fifth place in votes and sixth or worse in seats would put renewed pressure on Clegg and, consequently, on the coalition.

David Herdson