A turning point? The United Kingdom and the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999

From William King, German Historical Institute London 

While democracy consists of more than just elections, at times elections do throw us a curveball. In the 1999 elections to the European Parliament in the United Kingdom, one startling statistic stands out: voter turnout was 24%.1 This was lower than that of any other member state, with the average in the European Union resting at 49.8% (notably also quite low), and the 1997 UK General Election, when voter turnout was 71.3%.2  In Liverpool Riverside, where the lowest recorded voter turnout was to be found, voter turnout sat at an alarming 10.3%.3

The European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999

Indifference, frustration, salience, or even an attempt to vote against, or to abstain from, the recently elected government of Prime Minister Tony Blair all emerge as potential factors. And as Sara Hobolt finds, elections to the European Parliament entailed that constituents voted (or perhaps in this case did not vote) because of their views towards the European integration project – these were not just inward or domestically-focused elections.4 Other factors also come to the fore, including circumstantial reasons for abstention, such as work commitments, and the closeness or distance (in terms of date) to other elections, with local elections taking place in the UK just one month prior.5

In this instance, there was also a significant change. Prior to the elections, the 1999 European Parliamentary Elections Act was passed.6 It included major changes to the way in which European Parliamentary elections were conducted in the UK. The three most symbolic changes were moves from the traditional first past the post system to proportional representation, a closed-lists for candidates and greater centralisation in candidate selection, and a re-making of electoral boundaries from smaller constituencies to larger areas. In terms of boundaries, the Act stipulated that instead of constituencies, which provided UK MEPs with a local area to represent, campaign in, and raise issues for, ‘the United Kingdom shall be divided into electoral regions.’7 Essentially, it was a shift from a local area, for example Merseyside West containing a few hundred thousand potential voters, to a larger region, such as North West England, which included several million potential voters. These bold changes were in part a response to a Community-wide attempt to harmonise the different voting practices among the member states. And the Labour government supported the changes, but was not the sole supporter of the Act as with proportional representation other domestic actors and certain political parties saw an opportunity to secure political gains.8 While bringing UK voting practices closer to those of other member states in the European Union, the changes moved European parliamentary elections further away from voting practices and forms of representation in UK parliamentary elections.

The Act was not without controversy. One early instance of fierce disagreement arose over candidate selection for the 1999 election. The Labour government supported a closed list, which allowed greater central control over the selection process and the prioritisation of certain candidates, such as from under-represented groups and the selection of those with a particular skill-set or expertise. In the House of Commons, this move drew the ire of politicians from the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party, and Labour Party rebels, as well as the constitutional reform group Charter 88, who supported an open list and the possibility of voters selecting specifically who, from a regional party list, they wanted to vote for.9) The House of Lords, also refusing to approve the Act, began a ‘game of ping-pong which sent the Bill back and forth between the two Houses for an unprecedented five times.’2 Eventually, after enough critics were assuaged, the Act did make it through and it received Royal Assent, but it was a difficult process.

Whether the Act was a turning point is a difficult question. In terms of granting a degree of political legitimacy and a platform for the Green Party and for sceptics, such as those in UKIP, then yes, it was a turning point.10 The proportional representation system allowed them to bypass the daunting wall of the first past the post system, leading to their first elected MEPs: UKIP 3 MEPs and the Green Party 2 MEPs and offering a degree of credibility and a voice in the heart of Europe. A journalist for TheGuardian observed that both the Green Party and UKIP, ‘who have nothing in common but an opposition to the euro and an air of thrilled astonishment at achieving power, insisted they had now established their electoral credibility.’11 The answer is also affirmative in regard to changes to the fabric of the electoral system, including candidate-selection, first past the post, and the local constituency, which were significant alterations. And it was a turning point in terms of a lasting change in the composition of MEPs that the UK sent to the European Parliament following 1999 – prior to 1999 UKIP had no MEPs, then 12 MEPs in 2004 and 24 MEPs in 2014, and the Brexit Party secured 29 out of a possible 70 MEPs in 2019.12

When turning to any clear impact on voter turnout over the long-term, then the answer is a tentative no. Voter turnout was 38.5% in 2004 and it remained in the 30-40% range up to and including the final elections in 2019. The multiple changes may in fact have had an immediate detrimental impact in 1999, by creating a degree of confusion. On the surface, the Act and the changes appear to not have solved or significantly addressed the historic low voter turnout in the UK.

In relation to the new entries representing wholly novel voices then the answer is also more of a no. Opposition to membership and vocal arguments criticising the direction and associated policies of European integration had already long-existed before the shift to proportional representation, and could readily be found in the two major parties (the Labour Party and Conservative Party) before 1999. Likewise, support for environmental policies and environmental protection in the European Parliament, including by UK MEPs, long predates the entry of the UK Green Party. While the strength of conviction on a particular issue and having UK political parties present that were fully dedicated to one particular issue were perhaps new(er) developments, many of the views put forward were not original and had long been touted and raised in the history of the European Parliament before 1999. In sum, significant changes, certainly, but a turning point less so.

Cite this blog post
Editorial Board (2023, September 8). A turning point? The United Kingdom and the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999. (De)Constructing Europe. Retrieved June 12, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/olp3

  1. ‘Elections to the European Parliament – June 1999’, House of Commons Library, Research Paper 99/64, 21 JUNE 1999. Found at: https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/RP99-64/RP99-64.pdf (accessed on 25.05.2023). []
  2. Ibid. [] []
  3. Richard Cracknell, ‘European Parliament elections: How has the UK voted in the past?’, House of Commons Library, 21 May 2019. Found at: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/european-parliament-elections-how-has-the-uk-voted-in-the-past/ (accessed on 10.07.2023). []
  4. Hobolt, S., Spoon, J., & Tilley, J. (2009). ‘A Vote Against Europe? Explaining Defection at the 1999 and 2004 European Parliament Elections. British Journal of Political Science, 39(1), 93-115. []
  5. Fiorino, N., Pontarollo, N., and Ricciuti, R. (2019)’ ‘Supranational, National and Local Dimensions of Voter Turnout in European Parliament Elections. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 57, 877– 893. []
  6. European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999. Found at: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1999/1/enacted#:~:text=1999%20CHAPTER%201, Parliament%3B%20and%20for%20connected%20purposes (accessed on 25.5.2023). []
  7. European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999. []
  8. Labour Party Manifesto, 1997. Found at: http://www.labour-party.org.uk/manifestos/1997/1997-labour-manifesto.shtml (accessed on 25.5.2023). []
  9. Gabriele Ganz European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999: the constitutional issues, Amicus Curiae, June 1999, Issue 18. Found at: https://sas-space.sas.ac.uk/3916/1/1466-1716-1-SM.pdf (accessed on 25.05.2023 []
  10. ‘Elections to the European Parliament – June 1999’. []
  11. Lucy Ward, ‘This is just the beginning, say Greens and UKIP’, The Guardian, 15 Jun 1999. Found at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/1999/jun/15/uk.politicalnews5  (accessed on 10.07.2023). []
  12. ‘European Parliament elections 2019: results and analysis’, House of Commons Library, Research Briefing, 26 June 2019. Found at: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8600/ (accessed on 26.05.2023). While UKIP and the Brexit Party may well have secured some seats under a first past the post system, it would likely not have been on this same scale. []

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