“You can feel the Labour vote falling away in your hands,” Martin Horwood says of the sea change the UK political landscape is undergoing ahead of the European elections.
Horwood was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham between 2005 and 2015 and, as the party’s second candidate in the South-West, had assumed he had little chance of being dispatched to Brussels. No longer.
The Liberal Democrats have marketed themselves as the leading pro-Remain party ever since the June 2016 referendum. After four years in the political wilderness, they are suddenly reaping the rewards.
A party that was irrelevant just a few months ago is now set to finish second in the UK and win its most ever MEPs.
The South-West region voted heavily to leave the European Union at the June 2016 referendum, and the Brexit party – whose regional list is headed by former Conservative Ann Widdecombe – will comfortably top the poll and will expect to claim at least three of the region’s six seats.
But the Liberal Democrats and Greens expect to claim at least one seat each, potentially leaving a three-way battle between the Brexit party, the Liberal Democrats and Labour for the final seat.
Caroline Voaden, a former Reuters journalist, is leading the Lib Dem resurgence in the region. Her time as bureau chief in Zagreb and then Belgrade during the Balkan wars was a formative experience, she told EURACTIV.
Voaden was “absolutely thrilled and very surprised” to be elected by regional party members as the region’s top candidate.
Party activists point out that a 3/3 split in terms of Leave/Remain MEPs would be a good result in the region, and report conversations with Remain voters who are anxious that they do not split the pro-Remain vote.
Much of their ire, and Voaden’s, is directed towards the recently formed Change UK party, a pro-Remain coalition formed by a group of Conservative and Labour MPs, which has struggled to make any inroads in the European campaign.
“They are clearly going to split the Remain vote and if Change UK pick up 4-5% that could deprive us of a pro-Remain MEP. So they could end up gifting Nigel Farage another seat in the South-West,” says Voaden.
She recounts a conversation at the hustings at the coastal town of Poole earlier in the week where the Change UK candidate had defended his party’s showing after only existing for two months
“Ann Widdecombe turned around to him quick as a flash and said ‘we’ve only been going for five weeks and look at how well we’re doing’”.
At past European elections, parties have sought to get their core vote out rather than focus resources on convincing sceptics. These polls are no different, even if many view them as a proxy for a second Brexit referendum.
“We had a very clear strategy for this election because we only had four weeks. We don’t have time to convince Leave voters to vote for us. We know they won’t. So our job was to persuade Conservative and Labour Remainers who have been let down by their parties,” says Voaden
“We’ve been campaigning in Remain areas and getting a very warm welcome.”
That has prompted some complaints from party supporters in pro-Leave heartlands.
Voaden adds that she has had many conversations with Labour voters who can’t bring themselves to vote for their party or the Liberal Democrats to back the Greens.
The stream of people on Stroud high street – a Labour/Conservative marginal seat – suggests that voters are well aware of how to vote tactically.
“I’m a Remainer and I don’t want to split the vote,” one man says, adding that he will vote Green or Lib Dem.
At a hustings at a Cheltenham school, many of the largely pro-Remain audience seek advice on how best to use their vote.
The sudden Lib Dem resurgence has surprised many pundits. After serving five difficult years in government with David Cameron’s Conservatives, the party bore the brunt of the coalition’s unpopularity in 2015 and lost most of their seats. At the 2017 general election, they fell back further to a mere 9 seats and 8% of the vote.
But they surged in the local elections at the start of May, gaining more than 700 council seats from the Conservatives and Labour. Most of it is the result of Brexit, and the party benefited from Labour’s ambiguous stance on a second referendum.
Activists recount that there was an audible gasp when Andrew Adonis, a Labour candidate and a vocal People’s Vote campaigner, urged people to vote Labour for a People’s Vote.
But local politics plays its part, say activists, pointing to unpopular Tory-run councils in the Cotswolds, which prompted a swing to their party.
Either way, if Sunday night’s news headlines are almost certain to be dominated by a huge win for Nigel Farage, the European elections also appear set to put the Liberal Democrats back in business.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]