As I described here, British voters are upset about claims for expense reimbursement by members of the House of Commons. This week, for the first time since that scandal broke, those voters will have a chance to register their opinions at the ballot box.
On Thursday, Britain will elect its representatives to the European Parliament. Unlike general elections for the U.K. Parliament, the European elections are on a fixed schedule, and are held once every five years.
Voters tend to use those elections to cast a protest vote against the party in power. And there's a temptation to vote for fringe parties, such as the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which advocates British withdrawal from the European Union (EU). There are two reasons why many voters feel comfortable with that type of protest vote:
1. European Parliament elections are conducted under a system of proportional representation. Therefore, it's easier for a small party to win parliamentary seats, and there's less of a feeling that votes for such parties are wasted.
2. While the EU has taken on many of the functions that would otherwise be handled by national governments, the European Parliament is not as powerful within the EU structure, as national parliaments tend to be, within their respective national political systems. It cannot initiate legislation; its role is limited to ratifying policies initiated by the executive bodies of the EU. Since the outcome matters less, voters feel free to cast a symbolic vote.
In the U.K., the governing Labor Party seems to be hardest hit by the expenses scandal. The Liberal Democrats have pushed Labor down into third place in at least one poll of voting intention in the general election that will be held by next year. But the reputations of all of the parties have suffered.
The latest buzz has involved the notion that independent candidates and minor parties might win a significant share of House of Commons seats at that general election. The European election will be scrutinized for any hints of such a trend.
There will also be local government elections in some parts of the U.K. on Thursday, but the European election will provide a broader reading of voter attitudes.