It would be tempting to interpret last night’s results in the European Election as a massive victory for “Leave”, on the basis that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party looks set to end up with around 30% of the total votes (it’s higher than that at the moment, but Scotland and Northern Ireland will drag the figure down a bit) and is already emphatically the largest party sending representatives to Europe from the UK. Certainly, that’s what Farage and some hard-line Tory leave MPs such as Mark Francois are saying.
They are wrong. If you tot up all of the Brexit party’s votes and those of the remnants of UKIP (which is fundamentally where the Brexit party’s votes came from), they only manage around 35%. Thus, ardent Remain supporters are suggesting that the vote, over all, is a victory for Remain… after all, as they point out, Brexit and UKIP stood on a platform of “no deal” on access to the European market, and have signally failed to get an overall majority. There’s some naive truth there – given that, assuming we leave, all the MEPs we have just been electing are going to be out of a job at the most by 31st October (and possibly earlier, if a “let’s leave now and stuff deals” attitude prevailed), there was no reason for someone who actually wants a no deal Brexit to vote anything other than Brexit/UKIP. Logic would say that everyone who didn’t vote Brexit/UKIP does not want a no deal Brexit.
Logic is wrong, and so are those who consider this a 65/35 vote against a no deal Brexit. Logic is wrong primarily because people don’t vote entirely rationally. Had they done so, there would have been no Change UK votes cast anywhere (as they had no serious chance of electing a member), in most of England there would have either been no Green vote or no Liberal Democrat vote (as everyone thoroughly opposing Brexit would have voted tactically for whichever of those had the best chance of success in the area, just as I did – I was entirely ready to vote for whichever Remain party was strongest – and just as did Alastair Campbell, formerly Tony Blair’s press secretary, and he’s died in the wool Labour); in Scotland and Wales there would have been little reason to vote for anyone other than the nationalist parties. Granted, in Scotland, that seems to have been nearly the case!
Would there, however, have also been a complete absence of Conservative and Labour votes? Well, perhaps yes, had it been a straight “in or out” decision and arrived at completely rationally. After all, the only reason you would vote for an MEP of a non-clear-remain party is if you expect Brexit not to happen and that MEP to have a function, surely? However, it wasn’t a straight “in or out” vote. There’s also the possibility which has been being kicked around parliament for the last three years of a negotiated closer relationship with the EU while still leaving. Can we therefore assume that all the Labour and Conservative voters this time want a negotiated exit? (If we could, the balance would be 65/35 in favour of leaving, though not if it was no deal).
The trouble is, I don’t think we can assume that either. I’ve heard stories of long term Labour voters weeping as they cast a tactical vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I can easily believe that many felt unable to do that – but similarly, I know Conservative voters who just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for anything else. There may well be a significant number of Remain voters who still voted for those parties. But there may also be a significant number of “let’s leave with no deal” voters there, who similarly couldn’t bring themselves to vote outside lifelong party allegiances.
So it isn’t that simple. My own very strong preference would be to develop a “third way”, perhaps a Norway-style relationship, which could be implemented by Europe easily, would be very acceptable to them, would safeguard what’s left of our trade with Europe, and would remove the awful spectre of a hard border in Ireland, and then have another referendum with three options, no deal, Norway or remain. We would probably need to have a single transferrable vote system and eliminate the lowest of the three, reallocating those votes to their second preferences. Granted, that has it’s dangers for a Remainer like me – what if “Remain” was the lowest option? However, it would allow me to cast my second preference for Norway over no deal… and that would be preferable to the disaster which no deal would present.
I have no doubt that some Brexiteers will decry this as being antidemocratic – “the people have spoken and their will should be put into effect”. This is, of course, total bull. Having a public vote on something cannot be called “antidemocratic” in any way, shape or form, particularly when it does not ask the same question as was previously asked or when much more information is available, both of which are, of course, the case. Besides which, the people spoke in 1975 on Europe, I voted to be in Europe than, so what of the antidemocratic nature of having another vote in 2016?
One might as well say “the people have spoken and their will should be observed, so we should never have another General Election to the Westminster parliament”. After all, parliaments in the past have lasted around an average of 3-4 years, so we are arguably due a new vote anyhow!
There is a worrying factor, which Farage is now trying to capitalise on, and some Tory MPs are seeming to heed. That is that Brexit topped the poll in every region except London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and if you break down the figures by local council areas, Brexit were top of the poll almost everywhere in England and Wales (see the map in the BBC’s coverage).
The fear in the Conservatives (who didn’t top the poll anywhere) is that these results might be repeated in a General Election if Brexit doesn’t happen, or even that things might get even worse for them, and General Elections are on a “first past the post” basis, so had this election been on that basis, Brexit would have had every seat except for London, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That fear affects Labour as well, though not to anything like the same extent. Some Labour MPs really fear for their seats – after all, much of the North, the Midlands and South Wales should be red on that map.
They shouldn’t be as worried as they seem to be; after all, this was effectively a single-issue election. An election to Westminster would not be single-issue. One might normally expect the gains of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to disappear, leaving them both around the 7% mark again, and for Brexit to do only about as well as UKIP did last time (and they didn’t take any Westminster seats). However, I don’t think that would happen. Brexit would have to put forward a policy platform in order to do that – would it be as right-wing as the UKIP platform? Nobody knows. Far right, however, is not very popular in the UK.
I would expect some of the defections from the Conservatives to stay where they were, however – they are seen as being the masterminds of the chaos in parliament over the last three years, and would be punished. Labour might do slightly better, but they are seen as not forming a sensible opposition to the Conservatives, and would be punished as well. There’s also the factor that once one has voted other than one’s traditional party, it’s easier to do that again. And there is a significant swell of both absolutely ardent Leave and Remain voters who would still vote single issue (probably, if Brexit had not happened, more on the Leave than on the Remain side). What would that mean in terms of a General Election? I have no idea.
But I do know that the surest way of avoiding a parliament dominated by the Brexit party at the next election, on around 33% of the votes cast, would be to institute proportional representation of some kind, or (and it isn’t strictly proportional representation but come up with somewhat similar results) Single Transferrable Vote. I would favour STV, because almost all the other PR or PR-like systems magnify the power of political parties. The trouble is, I can’t see much chance of getting the current parliament to vote for that, even though it would tend to preserve the positions of the vast majority of Conservative and Labour MPs (and that’s easily more than three quarters of them), and it’s been LibDem policy for years…
But then, you may say, you would prefer that, because had these elections been by STV, the probability is that very few second preferences would have gone to Brexit, but many would have gone to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens, and I was a member of the Liberal Democrats, and a councillor for them, for many years. Actually, though, I rather lost confidence in the LibDems when they permitted the coalition government to follow neoliberal policies and exacerbate the trend towards an uncaring, non-compassionate society started under Thatcher, and I have been having my politics moulded more and more by the Synoptic Gospels, which push me increasingly towards the kind of politics espoused by Jeremy Corbyn. I might well vote Labour in the future – and actually did vote Labour in local elections last time (in a straight fight with Conservative, to be fair). I increasingly think that, in order to follow Jesus, one must be a socialist.
Indeed, if Labour now follow the views of the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Foreign Secretary (John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry) and come down firmly on the side of a new referendum, campaigning to remain, I may find myself supporting Labour without wincing too much, given my lifelong LibDem support. The trouble with Corbyn, in my eyes, is not that he’s “far left” as the Conservatives and most of the media (even including the Guardian) try to paint him (he would have fitted into, say, a Harold Wilson government without seeming particularly extreme), it’s that he hasn’t come down in favour of Remain. I suspect that he harbours thoughts that, in a fairly definitely neoliberal Europe, his ability to implement thoroughly socialist policies would be very limited – but against that, I would comment that outside Europe, it seems unlikely he would be commanding a strong enough economy to afford socialism.
Where does this leave us? Not, I think, including Farage and his mates in a negotiating team with the EU, as they are pushing for. There is, I think, an increased danger now of the Conservatives electing a new, hard Brexit leader to be PM, and that could far too easily lead to us crashing out with no deal on 31st October, with a PM happy to let that happen and a continuing voting deadlock in parliament. I think the chances of that have gone up significantly.
The thing is, a hard Brexit PM would find it utterly impossible to make a deal with any of the other parties, even more so than Mrs. May did. Even, I fancy, the DUP, which has been propping up the Conservatives so far in this government. I don’t see how, say, Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab could actually last more than a few weeks… unless, that is, the massive Con/Lab majority in the house are too scared for their seats and insufficiently prepared to put the interests of the country ahead of their personal position to rock the boat.
Unfortunately, nothing I have seen so far in this parliament indicates to me that the bulk of Conservative and Labour MPs are prepared to grow spines.