BREXIT UPDATE 32: The European Parliament Elections

As predicted, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has triumphed and the Conservative Party has suffered a catastrophe, coming in fifth behind the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Greens.  As in the local elections, Labour has also sustained many losses, but less disastrously than the Tories.  The Lib Dems came second, repeating their success in the local elections; and, as in the local elections, the Greens also did very well. The latest tally (Tuesday May 28; the votes are still being counted) is: The Brexit Party: 32 per cent; Lib Dems: 20 per cent; Labour: 14 per cent; Greens: 12 per cent; Conservatives: 9 per cent; UKIP 3.6 per cent.  Change UK (the former TIG), on 3.4 per cent, failed to send any MEPs to the European Parliament.  UKIP, Nigel Farage’s old party, which topped the poll in the last European election in 2014 but has recently moved to the extreme right, lost all its seats to the Brexit Party.[1]

The Brexit Party claimed on Sunday night that the vote represented an overwhelming victory for Leave; whereas the Liberal Democrats and Greens insisted that their strong showing indicated a surge in the UK towards Remain.  The elections expert Sir John Curtis was asked on the BBC on Sunday night who was right and he answered “neither”: the result showed, he went on, that the country is equally polarised between the extremes of Leave without a deal (the policy of the Brexit Party) and Remain.  If the split UK-wide Remain vote of the Lib Dems, Greens and Change UK is added together, it represents 35 per cent of the electorate, which is the same share of the vote that was gained by the Brexit Party and UKIP.  Professor Curtis reiterates this view in an article published by the BBC on Monday: “the outcome confirmed that the electorate is evenly divided, as well as polarised, between those two options.”[2]

It does seem true that Brexit was the one, polarised issue of this European election; but a caveat should be made in relation to the Greens; the surge in its vote is attributable not only to support for its Remain position but for its stance as the party above all that is concerned with an issue increasingly recognised as the most urgent of all:  climate change.  The Greens performed well all over Europe for this reason.  So, though the success of the Lib Dems in reaching second place does seem attributable to its clear policy of Remain, the amount of support for Remain should surely be lowered with regard to the Greens.  Also it is perhaps of some significance that Change UK, which has Remain as its only policy, does not have a single MEP.   There is at least a case for arguing that, equal though the two polarised positions seem to be, Leave (and without a deal) would have the edge in a second referendum.

A Guardian article that claims that the vote for Remain is greater than the vote for Leave nonetheless concedes:

“the Brexit party is dominant in England and Wales, outside London and the major cities of the south, Midlands and north-west.  In the North East, Yorkshire and East of England constituencies, the party was dominant, winning in Newcastle, Sunderland, Hull, Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield.”[3]

Though Professor Curtice argues that Labour haemorrhaged votes most towards Remain parties, he too concedes that there are strong Labour losses to the Brexit Party in Labour’s traditional working-class heartlands in the English North-East and Midlands: “Although Labour’s vote fell most heavily in the strongest Remain voting areas, its vote also fell, by as much as 11 points, in the most pro-Leave areas.”[4]

The Skwawkbox blog points out that the Lib Dems’ “heaviest support is concentrated in a few areas – primarily in the south and south-west – where they traditionally do well anyway”[5] – ie not in Labour’s heartlands, where the Labour losses are to the Brexit Party and would be much greater if Labour were to adopt a second referendum as its foremost policy, effectively repositioning itself as a Remain party.

Divisions within the Labour Party on a second referendum

The European election results have intensified divisions within the Labour Party leadership on the issue of a second referendum.  Writing in the Observer on Sunday, the Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, renewed his call for Labour unequivocally to back a second referendum, as the only way to beat the Brexit Party in a General Election.[6]  Interviewed on Sunday night on the BBC, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, said:

“We were not clear on the one single thing that people wanted to hear….we should have said quite simply that any deal that comes out of this government should be put to a confirmatory referendum and that Remain should be on the ballot paper and that Labour would campaign to Remain.”[7]

It is true that Corbyn has always indicated that, in the unlikely event that Parliament passes “a hard Tory Brexit”, there should be a confirmatory vote on such a deal before it becomes law, and that Labour would prefer to remain in the EU than to accept either No Deal or a form of Brexit to which Labour would be opposed (see Brexit Update 9); but Emily Thornberry’s version of this makes it sound as though this is – or should be –Labour’s foremost position, not an option of last resort.   She was clearly not expressing Labour Party policy but her own views.  Labour’s options of first resort are to honour the democratic result of the 2016 referendum (as is stated clearly in the 2017 Labour Manifesto)[8], push for a General Election and, if elected to government, negotiate a new Brexit deal with the EU based on Corbyn’s alternative plan and try to get this passed by Parliament.

It is worth reiterating the resolution passed unanimously at Labour’s annual Conference in September 2018 (already quoted in Brexit Updates 2 and 7):

“Should Parliament vote down a Tory Brexit deal or the talks end in no-deal, Conference believes this would constitute a loss of confidence in the Government.  In these circumstances, the best outcome for the country is an immediate General Election that can sweep the Tories from power.  If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.” (already quoted in Brexit Updates 2 and 7).

In his foreword to the Labour Party manifesto for the European Parliament elections, Corbyn expressed the position agreed recently by the National Executive Committee (NEC) (see Brexit Update 28):

“Labour will continue to oppose the Government’s bad deal or a disastrous no deal.  And if we can’t get agreement along the lines of our alternative plan, or a general election, Labour backs the option of a public vote.”[9]

In response to new clamours, in the wake of the European elections, for Labour to come out in unequivocal, full support for a second referendum, Corbyn has continued to put a general election first.  He seems now to have shifted his position only in so far as he is saying that any deal, including a Labour deal, will be put to a confirmatory public vote – though he does not say what else would be on the ballot. In an interview on Monday, he said the issue would be debated at the 2019 Labour Conference in  September, but that his first priority is a General Election. He added that any deal – clearly including a Labour deal – must be put to a public vote.[10]

Despite the criticism of Labour policy from Tom Watson and Emily Thornberry, other members of the Shadow Cabinet have supported Corbyn.  A Morning Star article quotes the Shadow Labour Minister, Laura Pidcock, who says “we have to deliver a society that brings together Leave and Remain and works for all” and the Shadow Justice Secretary, Richard Burgon, who points out that Labour’s compromise position was never going to succeed in the European Parliament elections —  a one-issue election where those who bothered to vote tended to be either passionate, polarised Remainers or equally passionate, polarised supporters of Leaving without a deal: “It was never going to work in this kind of low-turnout EU election where the people most interested in this important issue of Brexit, whether to Remain or Leave, came out to vote” .  The UK turnout, at 37 per cent, was higher than usual (in the past, Brits have not tended to take much interest in the European elections) but low compared with the rest of Europe and much lower than for an average General Election, where of course many other issues than Brexit are at stake. The same Morning Star article quotes the Labour Chair, Ian Lavery, who backs Corbyn’s position, insisting that the party will “never turn our backs on the 48 per cent or the 52 per cent – we will seek the real solutions that will heal society and bring together the 100 per cent.”[11]

In a very frank interview just before the European elections, Len McCluskey, the General Secretary of the powerful Unite union, accused Tom Watson of deliberately seeking to undermine Corbyn, in an attempt to ensure that Labour loses a General Election by turning itself into a Remain party and losing its Labour heartlands to the Brexit Party.  McCluskey, who described the European elections as “frankly, somewhat irrelevant”, very usefully summed up Corbyn’s problem with holding the party together:

“This conundrum is that we have 158 Labour MPs who come from Leave constituencies; 100  who come from Remain constituencies; a majority of Labour members who, it would appear, want to Remain; our working-class voters — which is our core vote — voted Leave; and Jeremy has to guide us through that…he’s said that Labour….is the only party that can bring the country back together…..the nation is split on Brexit, the Labour Party reflects the nation, and Corbyn is navigating our way through it”.[12]

To sum up:  it seems that not too much can be read into the European elections in relation to a General Election.  The same polls that correctly predicted the European election results have shown a clear lead for Labour in a General Election (see Brexit Update 30).  The European elections were assessed on a proportional representation system that is very different from the UK’s General Election first-past-the post.  The Liberal Democrats are unlikely to do well for this reason in a General Election – in addition to the factor that they are a party of protest in local and European elections but less likely to be voted for in a General Election.  The Brexit Party, however, is breaking all the rules for a new party and is predicted to perform very well even in a General Election.  The only force that can stop the Brexit Party is a Corbyn-led Labour Party with its present policies on Brexit that can overcome the division between the entrenched, polarised extremes of Leave without a deal and Remain and bring the country together.

And the latest news is that Alastair Campbell, former spin doctor to Tony Blair, has been expelled today (Tuesday May 28) from the Labour Party after telling the BBC on Sunday that he had voted Liberal Democrat in protest against Labour’s stance on a second referendum.  He says he only voted Lib Dem in order to send a message to the Labour leadership to change its policy and will appeal the decision.[13]

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-politics-48417378

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48402593

Professor Curtis adds that if the Welsh nationalists, Plaid Cymru (1 per cent) and the Scottish nationalists, the SNP (3.5 per cent) are added to the Remain tally, this would bring the Remain vote up to nearly 40 per cent; but he also points out that the “SNP is known to secure considerable support from those who voted Leave”.  As with the Greens, there are other reasons than Brexit for voting Plaid Cymru and SNP.

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/27/remain-hard-brexit-what-uk-european-election-results-tell-us

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48402593

[5]https://skwawkbox.org/2019/05/27/one-simple-graphic-cuts-through-spin-why-labour-must-not-go-full-referendum/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/25/tom-watson-labour-must-back-second-brexit-referendum

[7] https://skwawkbox.org/2019/05/27/thornberry-emerges-on-side-of-watson-in-bbc-appearance-and-as-potential-challenger/

[8] https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/labour-manifesto-2017.pdf

  1. 24: “Labour accepts the referendum result”.

[9] http://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Transforming-Britain-and-Europe-for-the-many-not-the-few.pdf

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22bQURKUZPA

[11] https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/labour-figures-call-retaining-party-position

[12] https://skwawkbox.org/2019/05/26/audio-mccluskey-dismantles-poor-imitation-machiavelli-watson-and-dismisses-centrist-referendum-spin/

[13] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48434842