It seems inevitable that we will have elections to the European Parliament in a couple of weeks time. Those who bleated about Europe being undemocratic are now bleating about the waste of money electing people to help run Europe – which, I admit, is a waste of money when it elects the likes of Nigel Farage, who takes his significant MEP salary and does nothing useful. Also about the incredible burden of having to vote again (which, of course, is what democracy demands, and what many of our forebears fought to achieve…).
Quite clearly, electing MEPs is not a waste of money if (and only if) we don’t actually end up leaving Europe. That is, I admit, an outcome I would very much like to see happen, but it seems somewhat unlikely unless those pressing for a new referendum get their way (and even then might not be the case). The reason is that both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party have accepted Brexit as a part of their political platforms, and under our largely two party system, they have a massive majority between them. The saving grace so far has been that they don’t agree with each other on the form Brexit should take – which is unsurprising as members of both parties don’t agree with each other on the subject.
However, this means that about 80% of Parliament is committed by manifesto to Brexit in one form or another.
This is curious to me, as before the referendum, around 67% of MPs were declared Remainers (including all the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and the Greens), and we haven’t had anything remotely like half of the MPs replaced by subsequent elections. MPs with backbone would have refused to stand on a Brexit manifesto if their views were that it was a disastrous idea – and they didn’t.
The breakdown of division along party lines we have seen as Parliament discusses Brexit does, unusually, mean that on this topic, MPs represent the actual views of the public as they were before the Referendum rather well – the country voted 52% to 48% for Brexit, but in talking to people who had voted for Brexit, they wanted widely different types of Brexit. However, I don’t think (given the lack of backbone I mentioned earlier) that we can actually trust Conservatives or Labour to vote their conscience rather than their party line, if such a thing could be re-established, and certainly not to be seen to vote against any Brexit at all.
In last week’s Local elections, it is notable that the LibDems and the Greens did remarkably well, both more than doubling their number of councillors. Pundits are pretty much agreed that this voting pattern reflected a degree of anti-Brexit sentiment, and was possibly largely a judgment on the handling of Brexit by the two main parties (both of whom lost a lot of seats, as, incidentally, did the arch-Brexit party, UKIP). This, of course, means that if the Pundits are right (which I think they are) people didn’t vote for the best people to represent them at local level, they voted significantly on the basis of national politics in which local councillors have absolutely no voice. (I disapprove of people doing that, and not least because I lost the council seat I’d occupied for four terms on the basis of a national trend which had nothing to do with local politics…). Encouraging to Remainers that may be, but we should note that we still have around 2/3 of councillors who belong to Labour or Conservative, and those are both pro-Brexit. The share of the popular vote was estimated (on the basis of all seats being fought) as 28% for each of Labour and Conservative and 19% for LibDem, so even on a properly proportional basis, there is still a 56% vote for pro-Brexit parties there.
Against that background, what are we going to see with the European elections? The first thing that strikes me is that people are really going to feel more free to vote along Brexit/Remain lines rather than to stick to the established parties (and I can’t criticise them too much, given that if we do leave, any MEPs will be in office for a very short time and unlikely to have much impact). It is impossible to estimate with any accuracy what proportion of people voted on Brexit lines and what proportion voted on traditional party lines (or even for the best candidate irrespective of party, which happens more at local level than in national politics). We also have the new Brexit Party and Change UK standing, respectively for Brexit and Remain, who will no doubt take votes and split the vote in both cases. OK, our voting system for those elections is on a regional list (proportional representation) basis, so splitting the vote might not matter so much as it would in our usual first-past-the-post elections.
Incidentally, the Brexit Party is fundamentally a new vehicle for Nigel Farage and his devotees (he’s currently a UKIP MEP), which I don’t want to underestimate because he’s the closest thing UK politics gets to Trump; Change UK is based on a group of Conservative and Labour MPs who have defected to form a new party (reminiscent of the SDP), and I have no idea how much traction they will actually achieve in an election. To my mind, they should have joined the LibDems (their predecessor, the SDP, did of course eventually merge with the Liberals to form the LibDems).
Against this background, there is a petition going around at the moment requesting the government to guarantee to hold a new referendum if pro-Remain candidates are in a majority after the European Election.
I haven’t signed it. The first reason is that I’ve signed every other petition to Parliament which offered the possibility of mitigating or reversing Brexit, and the government has taken virtually no notice of those at all. The second reason is that I worry that treating the European Election as basically another referendum may founder on the rocks of long term party loyalties; even though voters are going to feel more free to ignore their old loyalties in a potentially pointless election and even though party loyalties (at least for Labour and Conservative) seem to be at an all-time low, if the government did treat this election as functionally another referendum, I think there would be enough “reflex voting” along party lines that it would not actually represent the “will of the people” on Brexit at the moment, and they would be emboldened in going for some Brexit with a fresh argument that “the people have voted…”. To sign this would be giving another hostage to fortune, and I really don’t want to do anything which might conceivably increase the chances of Brexit happening.
There is another factor in play now, and that’s path-dependency. We’ve now been ostensibly leaving Europe for three years, and many companies (including Lloyds of London) have actually relocated outside the country to protect themselves against a hard Brexit. We can expect many more to be well along the route to doing likewise. Even I am somewhat swayed by the idea that we have basically done most of the damage already, and so some form of Brexit will at least lance the boil of paralysis in government. There are other issues which require urgent action, and they are being sidelined by Brexit. I’ve toyed with the idea that I might be able to swallow, say, a Norway-type solution.
But I tell myself that the contents of my last post on this topic still hold good. This will not be over even then…