Who won the European elections?

European Parliament building in Brussels

I have being trying to find out how the votes were cast in the European elections earlier this month. There is a provisional list of how the seats have been allocated (it can only be provisional until the new MEPs formally reconvene on 14 July) – you can read it on the official elections website here – but there is nothing about how many votes were cast. The section on the website on each country gives the percentage share of the vote by party, and the overall percentage turnout, but not the actual number of votes cast.

The reason I ask is that I was hoping to be able to say in my article about the Socialists and Mr Barroso (read it here) that the Socialist share of the vote had fallen by X per cent. As it was, I had to limit myself to saying that there had been “a swing away from the Socialists towards the EPP”.

There are several possible reasons why the data is not presented in this way. The European parties are not yet formally established – the Irish seats won by Fianna Fail have been allocated to UEN, their old group, whereas they have indicated that next time they will be in ALDE – so it is a little premature to make a formal allocation of the votes. However, a vote calculation could still be done on the same basis and with the same proviso that applies to the seat calculation that is currently posted on the web.

Another reason might be that there are different electoral systems in use in different countries, which means that the votes themselves might have a slightly different meaning. There is some truth in this – countries like Ireland and Malta that use preferential voting give more opportunities to smaller parties to gain first preference votes than the list system used in Great Britain – but nevertheless an aggregate total would still carry a lot of meaning.

The biggest reason against publishing such a list might be that it implies that voters are in fact voting for European parties. Most political parties contested the European elections on a largely if not exclusively national basis – all politics is local, after all – and so there is no reason to put all the votes acquired by different national parties together.

The answer to this one is easy: when it comes to the exercise of power by MEPs in the European Parliament, the voters actually are voting for European parties, even if they do not realise it. MEPs organise and vote on political party, not national lines, and aggregating the votes cast for the different party groups would make this reality clearer and more visible to the voters. It has long been a complaint of federalists that European politics is treated as something that the average voter should not be concerned with, and here is proof of that attitude. The European Parliament should take a step away from that way of thinking, and publish the full numbers.

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I remember working out aggregate numbers after the 1994 elections because they showed a mismatch between what was being reported and what really happened. In the overall total of MEPs, there was a swing from centre-right to centre-left, but this was actually skewed by the result in Great Britain. There, Labour gained 17 seats and the Conservatives lost 13, giving Labour 62 in total and the Conservatives only 18, but this was on the basis of a swing to Labour of only about 7 per cent. The huge gain in seats was the result of the first past the post electoral system that was used only in Great Britain (Northern Ireland uses proportional representation). The UK had 87 seats then, so Labour had 71 per cent of seats having won 44 per cent of the vote.

The consequence of this British peculiarity was that, as far as the allocation of seats was concerned, a swing in votes from left to right elsewhere in Europe was swamped by a swing from right to left in Britain. Those were the last European elections ruined by such an unfair electoral system in one member state, and the balance between seats and votes and thus public opinion is now much more closely matched.

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