European Parliament elections: How has the UK voted in the past?

The UK is due to take part in elections to the European Parliament (EP) on 23 May 2019. There are 73 UK MEPs to be elected. Here we look at which parties have held UK seats in the European Parliament over the last 40 years, and the gender and ethnic diversity of those elected.

How have EP elections changed over time?

Elections to the European Parliament are held every five years.

Under the current electoral system in Great Britain MEPs are elected for each region from a Party List; electors vote for their preferred party. Parties receive seats in proportion to votes won and candidates are elected in the order they appear on the Party List.

In Northern Ireland, the elections have always used a system of Single Transferable Vote where voters mark the number 1 next to their first preference, then they rank other candidates 2, 3, 4, etc. Voters can rank as many or as few candidates as they want. A counting process then operates which allocates seats to achieve the best overall fit between party vote shares and their number of MEPs.

It hasn’t always worked this way. Prior to the first direct elections in June 1979, members of the European Parliament (MEP) were delegates from national parliaments. Up until 1994 ‘first past the post’ was used, though since 1999 MEPs in Great Britain were elected using a regional system of proportional representation.

How have the different parties performed?

The table below shows the number of UK MEPS elected at European Parliament elections by party from 1979 to 2014.

UK MEPs elected at European Parliament elections by party

In 1979, the Conservatives received just over half the vote and won three quarters of seats in Great Britain. By 1994 the picture had been reversed and three quarters of UK MEPs elected were Labour. After the change to proportional representation in 1999, there was an increase in the number of MEPs from other parties. Ten Liberal Democrats were elected, compared with two in 1994, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Green Party and Plaid Cymru got their first MEPs.

At the last elections in 2014, UKIP won 24 seats, Labour 20 and the Conservatives 19. The Liberal Democrats had just one MEP, compared to 11 previously. The Greens had three UK MEPs.

European Parliament elections: votes by party

Notes:
1. Liberal Party in 1979 and SDP/Liberal Alliance in 1984. SDP votes in the 1989 election are counted under ‘Other’.
2. Ecology Party in 1979 and 1984.

In 2014 UKIP was the party with the most UK MEPs and won a share of 27% of the vote in Great Britain.

Turnout at European Parliament elections in Great Britain has typically been lower than at General Elections. It was exceptionally low in 1999 when fewer than one in four voters turned out. In all European Parliament elections, the turnout in Northern Ireland was higher than in the rest of the UK.

Diversity among UK MEPs

At the most recent European Parliament elections in 2014, 41% of UK MEPs elected were women. This compares with 37% of MEPs for all EU28 countries.

Following the first elections in 1979 14% of UK MEPs were women, compared to 16% for the European Parliament as a whole.

Women UK MEPs at European Parliament elections

In the absence of official data on ethnic background, Operation Black Vote reports there are six UK MEPs from a minority ethnic background. This is 8% of all UK MEPs and the same proportion as Members of the House of Commons.

Further reading

Richard Cracknell is head of the Social and General Statistics Research Section at the House of Commons Library.

Image: © European Union 2014 – European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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